Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hillary's in trouble

(Originally published 2/16/08)

Frontrunner status is a funny thing in politics.

It’s a good thing to have at the beginning. It’s easier to raise money, get media attention, hire people and attract volunteers if you’re the brand name of the race.

But once voting starts, frontrunners must perform.

This is why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have played hot potato with the frontrunner label since Iowa: HE’s the frontrunner! No, SHE is! No, HE is! The greater the expectations, the harder they are to meet (just ask Fred Thompson).

Obama and Clinton have traded wins across the country in what may be the most intriguing presidential primary in modern history. But Obama’s seven-state run since Super Tuesday (eight, if you count the U.S. Virgin Islands) has earned his advisers a PhD with distinction in expectation management: Not only is Obama now the undisputed frontrunner, but Clinton’s fortunes have taken such dramatic hits that her campaign is now in full damage-control mode.

Clinton held a conference call Monday with “donors, superdelegates and other supporters” wherein she struggled to convince them that “the nomination is not slipping away from her,” the New York Times reported.

Her supporters have legitimate cause for concern. Her three losses in the so-called Potomac Primaries Tuesday weren’t unexpected, but her advisers acknowledge that she may not win again until next month. And while Clinton will continue to earn delegates even in loss until then, Clinton insiders worry that a continued string of Obama victories will result in an insurmountable tsunami of momentum for him on March 4.

Even so, Clinton advisers, including longtime strategist James Carville, say plainly that a loss in any of three delegate-rich states – Texas and Ohio on March 4 (the old Super Tuesday) and Pennsylvania on April 22 – will spell doom for her campaign.

It’s a dangerous thing to bank your campaign’s fortunes on any single contest. Just ask Rudy Giuliani. He dropped out of the GOP race for president a day after finishing third in Florida, despite having spent nearly a month there.

But Giuliani’s slide began in Iowa. Once again, perception is reality: Giuliani didn’t win any contest before Florida, so in Florida, the perception that he couldn’t win among conservatives became reality. Clinton faces the same uphill battle. She’ll try to remain in the national consciousness as a winner despite the likelihood that all she’ll do for the next three weeks is lose.

* * *

The Democratic race has been so close, pundits have scoured results with electron microscopes looking for the slightest sign that the race may be tilting in one candidate’s favor.

On Tuesday night, they may have found it.

CNN exit polls showed that Obama beat Clinton among women and ran competitively with her in demographics where she had previously routed him: among white voters, seniors and voters primarily concerned with the economy.

For the neck-and-neck race to break, one candidate would have to start making inroads with the other candidate’s core supporters – and that is what appears to have happened during the Battle of the Beltway. Obama’s victories Tuesday were “built on a drastically different demographic than just a week ago,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said.

As CNN’s Gloria Borger put it, “The question is now, can Obama take this and run with it?”

* * *

On the blog this weekend, find out how much Alabamians have funneled into the presidential race so far and who’s raised the most money in Lee County:

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