Her nomination was supposed to be such a foregone conclusion that she didn’t even mount substantial get-out-the-vote operations in key states, including Ohio and Texas. What happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s cloak of inevitability?
Mathematically, the former first lady and current senator from New York could still win the Democratic presidential nomination and possibly the general election in November. But she’s blown a 20-point lead. Winning is an uphill fight for her now.
After spending more than $100 million from donors and $5 million from the sale of her memoir about her White House years, Clinton has fewer delegates than Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, whom the public didn’t even know until his dynamite speech at the Democratic convention in 2004.
He has momentum (what former President George H.W. Bush used to call “big mo”) and he has thousands of first-time contributors making donations to his campaign on the Internet while her big-money givers are all but tapped out for the primaries.
Her rallies draw good crowds; his are stupendous. Her speeches show her mastery of detail; his are electrifying, at least as much as any political speech can be called that.
If Clinton loses the nomination that her somewhat arrogant campaign staff all but assumed was hers for the taking, it will be for some obvious reasons:
— Americans, including Democrats, want to be asked for their vote — the most precious gift a citizen has to give in a democracy. The Clinton camp all but assumed it belonged to them. (And the country already has had almost 20 years of either a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.)
— The bloom is off the Bill Clinton rose. Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff gambled that so many Democrats remembered his presidency so fondly, he could do no wrong and would add luster to her quest. That worked until “the first black president” made a tremendous gaffe in playing the race card, suggesting that support for Obama was primarily because he is black.
— More Americans than ever before are registered as independent voters. Her sometimes-shrill partisanship began wearing thin when Obama emerged as a can’t-we-all-work-together alternative.
— The excitement of having the first woman president was countered by the possibility of having the first minority president.
— Young people are motivated by the idea of “changing” Washington, although that may be a pie-in-the-sky dream. Obama is 46 and seems fresh, if untested; Clinton, who is as establishment as they come, is 60. For many, she’s the past and he’s the future. And 70 percent of voters say they are tired of the “status quo.”
— Just like the Bush family, the Clinton family demands absolute, abject loyalty. This kept some friends and advisers from telling the senator she needed to make changes because she was underestimating Obama’s appeal.
— The “vast right-wing conspiracy” Clinton cited during her husband’s turbulent presidency really did raise questions about her. Is she a victim? A liberal zealot? Too shrewd for her own good? Despite knowing her for many years, millions of Americans aren’t sure who she is. Many find her saga exhausting.
It’s clear Clinton knows she is in trouble. She’s reorganized her staff. She’s put foot soldiers on the ground in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. (Inadvertently, she has now followed the Rudolph Giuliani strategy. Giuliani had to win Florida — and failed to do so — and now she must win Ohio and Texas to stay viable.) Bill Clinton is now seen but scarcely heard. (Heavy on the grip-and-grins; light on the sound bites.)
She’s challenged Obama to debates, her strong suit. She and presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain are ganging up on the Illinois senator to show how tough they are. She’s mellowed her hostility and lack of accessibility toward the press.
If she doesn’t weather this storm, she’ll become one of the great hardworking senators. If she prevails, perhaps she’ll have learned valuable lessons. It could go either way.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)