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How-To Guide For a Clinton Comeback

Hillary Rodham Clinton's larger-than-expected defeats at the hands of Barack Obama in Tuesday's Potomac Primary left the New York senator battling the idea that her campaign has lost crucial momentum in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Just 20 days now separate Clinton from the primaries in Ohio and Texas -- two states that are rapidly emerging as places she must win convincingly in order to re-set the storyline ("Obama picking up steam") sure to dominate coverage between now and then.

The narrative of the eight days since Super Tuesday has not been a good one for Clinton. She has lost eight straight contests, had her $5 million personal loan to her campaign exposed to public scrutiny, watched as national polling shows her in a virtual tie with Obama and had to weather a staff shakeup as campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle and deputy campaign manager Mike Henry resigned in recent days.

What can -- and should -- Clinton do to turn things around between now and March 4? The Fix asked a handful of top party strategists what they would advise Clinton to do. Their suggestions amounted to a sort of "how to" guide for a Clinton comeback.

Here's their advice, condensed into four easy steps:

1. It's The Economy, Stupid: Clinton began the race with a clear advantage over Obama among voters who cited the economy as the most pressing issue facing the country. That edge narrowed and then disappeared altogether as the contest stretched on. Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster, suggested that Clinton should revive a message similar to her husband's "It's the economy, stupid" mantra that defined the 1992 presidential race. "She should issue an economic 'white paper'," said Yang. "She should talk about fiscal responsibility and the economic boom during the Clinton years and make the argument that she will be the jobs/economic candidate." An emphasis on the economy and her knowledge to turn it around -- a wisdom born of experience -- could resonate particularly well in a Rust Belt state like Ohio or even Pennsylvania, which will hold its primary on April 22.

2. Make News: In the wake of Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign appears to have fallen into a "play it safe" mode that no longer fits the sort of campaign she must run to beat Obama. "She needs to start making news, by having interesting things to say," said one Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. The source added it "seems crazy that her campaign sent her over to '60 Minutes' [this past Sunday] with no clear story or point she wanted to sell." Clinton is no longer the frontrunner in the race and, therefore, a traditional "Rose Garden" strategy simply won't work. Chris Lehane, a longtime Clinton loyalist and an advocate of an economic argument, suggested that the New York senator should use "compelling" events to drive the news of the day. His suggestion? "A before and after tour of places in Ohio that were falling backwards under Bush I, came back under Clinton I, fell back under Bush II and what Clinton II will do to get them going forward again."

3. Internet Cash = Loyal Supporters: Many within the broad orbit of the Clinton campaign don't think enough has been made of the fact that more than $12 million has been raised online since Super Tuesday. The money story has been almost unremittingly bad for Clinton in the past week -- Obama raised $32 million in January alone, Clinton was forced to loan her campaign $5 million before the Feb. 5 votes. But this storyline, according to party strategists, is one that has potential to show that there are a good many people in the country who believe strongly in Clinton and are willing to show it by giving small-dollar contributions to her cause. Obama, to date, has had a stranglehold on the "candidate as cause" storyline; this outpouring of Web donations to her campaign could well change that dynamic ... if cast in the right light.

4. Over-perform in Wisconsin: The Badger State primary is set for Feb. 19 and represents the last, best chance for Clinton to win (or at least lose by less than expected) before March 4. While there is a considerable progressive base in Wisconsin -- in Madison in particular -- there are a lot of blue collar, lower middle class white voters who could be responsive to a Clinton message heavy on the economy. Losing by a large margin in Wisconsin -- coupled with an expected big Obama win in his home state of Hawaii -- could be the beginning of the end for Clinton. "To halt the Obama momentum before March 4, [Clinton] needs to either win in Wisconsin or have a huge burst of super delegates announce for her so she can regain the delegate lead," said Steve Murphy, a Democratic consultant and former adviser to Gov. Bill Richardson's (N.M.) presidential bid.

Simple, right? Not exactly. Clinton now finds herself in a very difficult position. She knows that her best chance of winning more primaries doesn't come for another three weeks, but is also aware that events in those 20 days have the potential to alter the playing field she will fight on come March 4.

What's your playbook for a Clinton comeback? Sounds off in the comments section below.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 13, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Potomac Primary: Winners and Losers

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