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Clinton Exuding Confidence

By Perry Bacon Jr.
South Bend, Ind. -- As Hillary Clinton continues virtually nonstop campaigning between North Carolina and Indiana, the candidate and her team are showing signs of increased confidence.

After spending weeks blasting Barack Obama at any potential opening, Clinton aides have spent the past couple of days privately rather gleeful about Obama's plight with his former pastor, though they've said little publicly. Asked at a press conference on Monday about the matter, the candidate quickly sidestepped Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright to blast Arizona Sen. John McCain, saying his condemnation of an ad being run by the North Carolina Republican Party that mentions Wright was not forceful enough.

"It's the gift that keeps on giving," noted one Clinton aide of Wright.

In recent days, Clinton's jabs at Obama have been gentle and often unnamed, far from her "meet me in Ohio" and "shame on you, Barack Obama" blasts on the eve of the vote in Ohio. She spent the weekend challenging him to debates, but even dropped that this week to criticize Obama for not supporting a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax.

Clinton aides think that even if the measure is a limited way to reduce gas prices, it allows the candidate to bash oil companies and cast her opponent against an idea that has political appeal.

Both candidates announced gains in the superdelegate battle today, and fresh endorsements pulled them dead even on Capitol Hill, where 97 lawmakers have backed both Clinton and Obama. The latest came from California Rep. Lois Capps, who is backing Obama.

Clinton continues to cast herself as the candidate of "solutions" rather than "speeches" in an implied criticism of Obama, but in a more mocking way than a sharp-edged tone.

"If all you had to do was show up in Washington and say 'let's change' I think Evan and I would have figured that out," she said in one stop in Indiana as she traveled there over the weekend with Sen. Evan Bayh.

Her operatives speak confidently about winning in Indiana. They are publicly playing down their chances of victory in North Carolina, but her schedule suggests otherwise. Clinton is almost spending as much time in the Tar Heel state as the must-win state of Indiana--as is her husband, who is campaigning extensively in rural towns in both states. Her aides think finishing only a few points behind Obama in North Carolina and winning in Indiana and other states in May could push her to a lead in the overall popular vote, even without counting votes in Michigan and Florida.

Ace Smith, Clinton's North Carolina state director, is repeating the campaign's mantra that a win in the Tar Heel State would be "the upset of the century." Clinton operatives in both Indiana and North Carolina are targeting independent voters in both states, believing a demographic that heavily favored Obama in early primaries is now shifting to the New York Senator. And the endorsement of Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina added to the Clinton camp's sense of momentum there.

"He's a very popular governor," Smith said.

Clinton herself seems to be speaking more easily about two controversial parts of her presidential run: her personality and her husband.

"Now, I know there are some people who say, 'Oh my goodness, she is tough,'" Clinton told a crowd in Salisbury, North Carolina on Monday. "Well, if you'd had my life you'd be tough, too."

Asked at a press conference that day about her husband's role in the campaign, she said,
"I'm very proud of the role my husband is playing in the campaign. I think it's very helpful to have the only successful two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt campaign for me."

And in a more cosmetic change, Clinton's staff upgraded its travel from a 717 to MD-80 airplane. The former, smaller plane had a restroom only in the rear, forcing the Former First Lady to walk by the press corps every time she headed to the lavatory. The latter is more expensive to fly, suggesting the cash-strapped campaign may be in a slightly better financial situation.

Of course, many challenges remain for Clinton. Obama has an almost insurmountable lead among pledged delegates and in the popular vote and is gaining on Clinton's lead among superdelegates. Increasingly, the Democratic primary seems "demographically polarized" in the words of one of Clinton's staffers. White working class voters, older women and Latinos are sticking with Clinton, while the young, blacks and voters with college degrees side with Obama, a development that favors Obama in the long run, as he is already ahead and his base seems guaranteed not to abandon him.

And Clinton, who packed three fundraisers around four events on Monday in North Carolina, is still being vastly outspent in both of these key states by Obama, who almost never holds events to raise money because he is so effective online. The $300,000 Clinton raised in the Tar Heel State pales in comparison to what Obama raises many days without any effort.

And her negative ratings have spiked through the nomination process, making it harder to make her electability case to Democratic superdelegates.

But the New York Senator seems almost to be basking in the midst of an increasingly long campaign that has at times exhausted her opponent and her own staffers, who are constantly rotating on and off the road.

Comparing the campaign to a hiring decision, as she often does, Clinton told a crowd in Concord, North Carolina on Monday, "we've had the longest interview for any job."

But she quickly added, "I'm available and I would love to serve."

By Washington Post Editors  |  April 30, 2008; 11:10 AM ET
 
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