A Campaign for the Ages
By Dan Balz
An e-mail arrived Tuesday morning from Ohio. "Just amazin'," read the subject line. The rest of the message said simply, "Never seen anything like this."
The message came from a political junkie in the Buckeye State who has not taken sides in the Democratic race but who admires a good campaign as much as anyone -- and this one has been extraordinary.
The polls opened Tuesday in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont with as much expectation and uncertainty as on any day since the Iowa caucuses in January -- and potentially the most consequential of any primary or caucus day this year. As New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the other day, Tuesday is D-Day for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, with the pressure mostly on Clinton.
Measured by the results since Super Tuesday, this is Obama's race to lose. After 11 straight victories, his campaign looks to Tuesday to close out the race. But measured by atmospherics of the last few days, this may be Clinton campaign's to win, with both Texas and Ohio considered close enough that they might tip in her direction.
That both campaigns were equally nervous as the voting began Tuesday spoke to the astonishing performances of both candidates over the most grueling terrain imaginable, two months of a race that has stretched both to the limits. The polling in Ohio and Texas also shows a Democratic electorate that admires both candidates, but that is still sharply divided along economic and demographic lines over whom they want to run against John McCain in November.
Clinton has dominated the final days of the campaigns in Texas and Ohio. Her ringing phone ad in Texas put a sharper focus on the issue of presidential readiness. Her grittiness in Ohio has kept her hopes alive there. In daily conference calls, her spokesmen have raised repeated questions about Obama's ties to indicted contributor Tony Rezko and about what his chief economic adviser may have told the Canadians about NAFTA.
Obama and his advisers have been knocked back on their heels, charging Clinton with employing a "kitchen-sink" strategy of throwing everything possible at the Illinois senator in the hope that something would stick with the voters. Obama's press conference performance in San Antonio Monday, richly described by my colleague Dana Milbank in Tuesday's Post, allowed the Clinton campaign another opportunity Tuesday morning to keep hammering away.
Was all this the last gasp of a Clinton campaign on the brink of elimination or a sign of what is to come if she manages to survive Tuesday's voting? Campaign communications director Howard Wolfson said the Clinton team is bullish about its prospects and confident that she will be in a position Wednesday to keep the campaign going forward. But the Obama campaign is prepared to press its case, with delegate math and endorsements from more superdelegates, that any bullishness from Clinton is manufactured.
The spin wars began days ago. Obama's advisers have, correctly, pointed out that Clinton will remain in a deficit position on the all-important delegate count, almost no matter how Tuesday's results turn out. They are ready to press their claim to the nomination on the basis that she can never overtake Obama.
But a pair of Clinton victories Tuesday -- or perhaps one big victory -- will give the New York senator's team the opportunity to argue that the race is far from over. Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Clinton supporter, already has predicted that, if the race is still going after Tuesday, Clinton will win his state decisively on April 22.
"Meet me in Pennsylvania" will become the new battle cry for the Clinton campaign, just as "Meet me in Ohio" was slapped on placards and T-shirts as a rallying cry there over the past 10 days.
The campaigns have left nothing on the table in this final week. Obama has poured his superior resources into a barrage of television commercials in Ohio and Texas. He has tapped his enormous networks of volunteers in both states to mobilize and turn out his voters. The candidate has not wilted in the face of Clinton's attacks.
Clinton has worked hours that would sap the energy of a candidate 15 years her junior -- working the night shift and then the early shift on just a few hours' sleep. As in New Hampshire, when even her own advisers thought she was going to lose, Clinton has doggedly refused to accept the early obituaries of her candidacy. "I'm just getting warmed up," she told reporters on Monday.
Which is why political aficionados stand in awe of the two candidates and revel in the vibrancy of their competition. Those who know politics best -- as the message from Ohio Tuesday showed -- cannot get enough of this campaign. Whether it ends after Tuesday or continues on, it has been one for the ages.
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