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Who's the Underdog?

Hillary Clinton speaks at Professor Larry J. Sabatos American politics class at the University of Virginia on Monday, Feb. 11, 2008.(AP.)

By Joel Achenbach
Is Hillary Clinton now the underdog? So says her husband.

"It is now in some ways the underdog campaign, even though it has received hundreds of thousands more popular votes," Bill Clinton, referring to his wife's campaign, said last night in front of about 4,000 people at George Mason University in Fairfax.

Maybe that was just some freelance spin from an irrepressible spouse. Or maybe it's the next logical argument from campaign headquarters. Everyone loves an underdog. Just a week ago, Obama was casting himself as an underdog as he awaited returns on Super Tuesday. (And last month he said, "When your name is Barack Obama, you're always an underdog in political races.")

One phrase you hear in the news media is that Sen. Clinton is a "February underdog," which hedges the spin. (Good news: It's the shortest month of the year. Bad news: There's going to be a Leap Day!) The senator herself still sounds confident as all get-out: "We had a great night on Super Tuesday; I'm still ahead in popular votes and in delegates."

But this is certainly a down moment for the Clinton camp. You have to loan yourself millions of dollars, you get swept in a bunch of caucus states over the weekend, you sack your campaign manager, and now the "Potomac Primary" comes along with little hope for anything but more bad news. So maybe it's not a bad idea to play the underdog for a while. It worked once before, in New Hampshire.

Clinton has shown an ability to get voters to rally to her cause when she looks down and out. We'll say it again: Politics isn't a fully rational enterprise. Things like loyalty, empathy and outrage could give Clinton a boost if the numbers keep going against her. Never mind Obama's soaring rhetoric and proven ability to inspire: A lot of voters who vote with their heart may yet go for Clinton.

There's more than a little irony in that, since Clinton is not viewed as emotional herself, and is, to the very core, a policy wonk and pragmatist. She can talk all day long about the various levers and toggles of government. And Bill Clinton last night at GMU reminded us that policy really runs in the family, as he offered a three-part policy prescription for every conceivable issue from health care to the mortgage crisis.

Obama, meanwhile, is doing some initial framing of what would be the general election battle against John McCain. Not that he's sounding overconfident or getting ahead of himself. But he brought up McCain yesterday afternoon in front of 15,000 people in Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena. He said that Sen. Clinton is telling audiences that he wouldn't be able to withstand the Republican attack machine in the fall (click here for the YouTube of the speech).

"I have to explain to people, I'm skinny but I'm tough. Yes. Skinny, I'm wiry! Don't mess with me! Let 'em bring it on. Who they got, John McCain?"

The mention of McCain's name brought a smattering of boos. Obama quickly offered praise for the presumptive GOP nominee, saying he's a genuine American hero and has been through experiences that most people can't imagine.

"He deserves applause. He deserves respect."

Sure enough, an arena full of Democrats clapped for McCain.

"But he is on the wrong side of history right now," Obama said. "We are the party of tomorrow, he's the party of yesterday."

Which has a familiar ring to it. For Obama and his strategists, McCain and Clinton are somewhat interchangeable.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 12, 2008; 11:38 AM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Joel's Two Cents , Primaries , The Democrats  
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