Hillary Clinton: From expected winner to on the ropes
Published Sunday, May 11, 2008 3:07PM EDT
WASHINGTON - Hillary Rodham Clinton began her presidential quest armed with talent, tenacity, fame, money, connections and a team that knew how to win.
Many people believed her victory in the Democratic nomination battle was a sure thing. Her ultimate failing may have been in believing it, too.
Clinton had one big problem out of the gate: 40 percent or more of Americans said they'd never vote for her. She was too polarizing. It's love her or hate her.
Clinton powered through that hurdle in state after state, showing grit that earned her the valuable political currency of being merely admired.
White men, blue-collar workers, socially conservative Democrats -- however you slice the electorate, she brought many of those people to her side, over time, and took the edge off the Hillary haters.
Voters, whose No. 1 concern had been ending the Iraq war, started worrying more about the economy. That was a switch from his strength to hers.
Despite all that, her campaign is on the ropes. Clinton is fighting on for a prize few believe she can win anymore, barring some game-changing development.
Clinton's fortunes rose and fell like a fever chart: She was down in Iowa, up in New Hampshire, down in South Carolina. Then, after a roughly even finish with Barack Obama on Super Tuesday, she suffered a string of unanswered losses that, almost before Clinton noticed, put Obama so far ahead in the delegate hunt that all the big-state victories she piled up couldn't close the delegate gap.
Clinton once said she is the most famous person no one knows, meaning Americans don't really get her.
Sixteen months after she opened her campaign sitting on a couch in a cozy online video, it's questionable whether people ever discovered the authentic Clinton.
Is she the whiskey-downing pit bull of Indiana? The near-tears softy of New Hampshire?
The technocrat of health care reform or the populist who dismisses policy wonks as out-of-touch elitists?
"They know that I can make decisions," she said in New Hampshire, "but I also want them to know I'm a real person."
Even many of the New York senator's supporters thought she would say anything to win, or be anyone.
These are some of the paradoxes and missed opportunities that will be examined by the cottage industry sure to arise to explore the what-ifs of Clinton's campaign.
By now, it's common knowledge that she planned to wrap up the nomination in early February. It was a reasonable assumption in 2007 but there wasn't much of a Plan B when that didn't work out in 2008.
"Her inevitability was based on a concept that no one would have the gumption or the resources or drive to get in -- anyone with serious chances," Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic chairman and Barack Obama supporter, said after her Super Tuesday strategy fell short.
"They had an inevitability strategy, which was sort of a political Maginot line. It was illusionary. You just went around it, and, you know, Barack Obama did that."
David Gergen, a senior adviser to a succession of presidents from both parties, thought she was not well served by her team, citing "elements of malpractice in this campaign."
Any failed campaign is a combination of what the fallen did wrong, what the victor did right and happenstance.
Did her loose cannon of a husband shoot a hole through their own hull?
Did Florida and Michigan help to blow it for her in their rogue rush to hold early primaries against party rules, a move that sidelined delegates from two big states open to her?
Questions like that go into the same file with Ralph Nader-2000. Pundits will chew them over without ever being able to prove the answer, just as no one knows for sure whether Nader's candidacy robbed Al Gore of the presidency.
Clinton was on a springtime roll until Tuesday, when she lost big in North Carolina and barely prevailed in Indiana. Obama has swallowed several worse days than that and cruised on.
It loomed so large for Clinton because she had fallen so far behind in the contests of winter. One of the striking features of the drawn-out Democratic race is that so much damage was done to her chances in such a short spell.
After Obama's big win in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, a reporter asked Clinton as she campaigned in New Hampshire whether she felt Obama was a phenomenon that she just couldn't overcome, no matter what she did.
Clinton didn't acknowledge it publicly at the time, but months later said privately that she often thought of that question and sometimes felt it had some truth.
By that thinking, the notion of inevitability had been turned on its head. Maybe he was the chosen one all along.
Then Obama's halo fell in some mud. She fiercely exploited his missteps, criticized him in ways sure to delight Republican ad writers in the fall and -- lest anyone miss the alpha female point -- downed some beer at a bar and chased it with a shot of the hard stuff.
She was still, by all appearances, in it to win it. Burp.
That's what she said at the start. "I'm in to win."
In embarking on a historic campaign to become the first female president, she faced the untested Obama and a field of well-regarded veterans who, for all their qualifications, did not make the pulse race.
"She's unstoppable," John Catsimatidis, a New York businessman and member of Clinton's finance team, said in February 2007. "She's got such a machine."
Even Obama seemed to believe in the Clinton juggernaut.
A big crowd draw even before he became a candidate, he cautioned people not to make too much of the excitement he was generating as a fabulous speaker on his own historic mission -- to be the first black president.
"The novelty's going to wear off," he said.
On one Sunday in September, Clinton used the phrase "When I'm president" at least seven times on the talk shows.
"If this were a wedding, we'd be at the 'speak now or forever hold your peace' part," Steve McMahon, a former Howard Dean adviser, said of Clinton's position in October.
"It will be me," she said confidently in November.
Even before that, back when she was dismissing him as a policy lightweight who was "irresponsible and frankly naive" on foreign affairs," he was showing he was not to be taken lightly.
He raised almost as much money as Clinton in the first quarter of 2007, then surpassed her the next quarter. Both left the rest of the field far behind.
Finally came the Iowa caucuses, and a rude shock for Clinton.
She had campaigned hard in Iowa despite being advised to skip it because it was her "consistently weakest state." Clinton finished third behind Obama and John Edwards.
The political class, never shy about getting colossally ahead of things, did a head-snapping turnaround and suddenly wondered if she was all but finished.
You must be kidding, New Hampshire seemed to say in response.
"I found my own voice," Clinton said after her restorative New Hampshire win.
In her success were planted the roots of her falling out with black voters, who initially were drawn to her over the lesser-known Obama.
Snide remarks from surrogates drew oblique attention to his race. Then Bill Clinton weighed in, in New Hampshire and beyond, with anti-Obama rhetoric that quickly came to be seen as a sour dose of wedge politics.
Hillary Clinton lost South Carolina and the heated contest headed into an indecisive Super Tuesday, when she won nine states and a territory to his 13 states.
She had once figured it would all be over by midnight on the West coast, that night.
Instead she plunged into states where her campaign had not thoroughly prepared to compete. She revealed that she had loaned her campaign $5 million of her own money.
She lost 11 races in a row in three weeks, relinquishing a lead in the delegate count that she would not get back.
Well before that fateful string had played out, Clinton replaced campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle with longtime aide Maggie Williams. Later, strategist Mark Penn would be cut loose.
A kind of March madness seemed to infect both campaigns.
Clinton's made-up story of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire as first lady underscored questions about her veracity, as revelations about the fiery rhetoric of Obama's longtime pastor kicked up doubts about her rival's judgment.
The month opened with Clinton staging a comeback in the Ohio and Texas primaries, advancing her case that she was the one who could win the big, important states.
In what seemed like an eternal vacuum -- or perhaps a vacuous eternity -- before Pennsylvania on April 22, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright matter festered and Obama's already shaky standing with some segments of the white population worsened.
Clinton exploited the latter without having to stir the pot on the former. It had a life of its own.
She said merely, but pointedly: "You don't choose your family, but you get to choose your pastor."
After Obama told California fat cats about bitter small-town Americans who clung to their guns and Bible, Clinton saw a chance to become ever more the populist, and went for it with gusto.
In Indiana and North Carolina, she won the votes of two-thirds of whites without a college education, exit polls found.
In the bizarre calculus of choosing a Democratic presidential nominee, expectations remained paramount deep into the race, even though hard delegate totals give a candidate the prize.
In part, that's because this nomination is close enough that it can only be clinched by the party figures known as superdelegates, who sit out the contests and decide on their own time who's most likely to beat Republican John McCain in the fall.
Through all of Obama's trials, they continued drifting his way, slowly but inexorably. Bill Clinton hectored some of them, to no avail.
Still, Hillary Clinton survived, as long as she exceeded expectations.
At first she was expected to win big in Pennsylvania. Then she appeared to lose most or all of her advantage. So her eventual win there, just short of 10 points, was a bit more than expected.
That all changed in Indiana and North Carolina.
By then, Obama was the one seen struggling, still wrestling with the Wright fallout and his broader problem with some whites.
And so expectations rose for Clinton to win Indiana handily and close in on Obama in North Carolina.
It didn't happen.
In a twisted way, the Wright matter may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Hillary Clinton.