It is no longer possible to overstate the trouble in which Hillary Clinton's campaign finds itself. Her losses yesterday in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., surprised nobody, but the one-sidedness of the results seemed to stagger even a generally anti-Hillary press corps. The trio of elections favored Barack Obama, of course, coming as they did in places with both sizable African American populations and large numbers of highly educated, upper-middle-class white voters. But Obama won at least 60% of the vote in all three jurisdictions, a figure he could not have achieved without performing exceptionally well outside of his two base constituencies. It is no longer a matter of hype and momentum: Senator Obama has started to pull ahead in a decisive manner.
Simply put, if Senator Clinton is to remain competitive in the race for the Democratic nomination, something must change between now and March 4 when her firewall states of Texas and Ohio hold their primaries. There are three possible ways this could occur, and two are fairly unlikely. First, she can win one of the states up for grabs next Tuesday. This, however, appears next to impossible. Barack Obama was born and raised in Hawai'i, and should win that state's caucus overwhelmingly. Wisconsin, whose Democratic voters cluster in Milwaukee, a city with a strong African American population, and Madison, a quintessential liberal college town, seems tailor made for Obama as well, and recent polls indicate that he currently enjoys a double digit lead in the battle for the Cheesehead vote.
Assuming that Hawai'i and Wisconsin are out of reach, Clinton's next hope would be to pick up a key endorsement that would blunt Obama's momentum. John Edwards is the obvious choice, followed perhaps by Al Gore. But the two Democratic stars have no incentive to attach their names to a campaign that appears, at least for now, on the verge of implosion. Indeed, Clinton's bigger hope is that these key endorsements don't instead go to Obama sometime within the next two weeks. Regardless, endorsements increasingly appear overrated; if Ted Kennedy's blessing could not deliver Massachusetts to Senator Obama, then what real effect could Edwards or Gore possibly have on voters in Dallas and Cincinnati? Four years ago, Gore threw his weight behind Howard Dean, which did nothing to prevent the Democratic electorate from ultimately siding with John Kerry.
That leaves the upcoming presidential debates as perhaps Hillary Clinton's last, best hope of recovering in time to score the big wins she needs come the first Tuesday in March. She has been a strong debater, generally more secure and effective than Obama, though he has been catching up quickly. She has debated as frontrunner and then as equal. Now Senator Clinton must, for the first time, craft a strategy as the underdog.
As I see it, she will take the stage with three goals. The first will be to persuade voters that the race is not yet over. She must do this both through her demeanor and by what she actually says. There must be no clumsy attacks, no Hail Mary moments that reek of desperation. Clinton should review all of Mitt Romney's moves in his final debates with John McCain and Mike Huckabee and do the opposite in every instance. There is a setting between hopeless petulance and giddy, unbelievable self-assurance; she needs to find that place and remain there for the entire evening.
Clinton must also remind voters of the closeness of the actual delegate count. She obviously cannot do so in a way that sounds too much like a plea to be taken seriously. But she can point out, in the course of her various responses, that she and Senator Obama, regardless of the outcomes since Super Tuesday, remain essentially tied for the nomination. Even if he handily wins Hawai'i and Wisconsin, Obama will still lead Clinton in total delegates by no more that about 200, a number barely exceeding 50%. Further, in terms of raw votes cast, the results similarly approach 50-50. In short, expectations and hype aside, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are, for now at least, all but even in the race for the nomination, and she must emphasize that point.
Second, she must be willing to put Obama on the defensive. Despite the current surge of support he is experiencing, the Illinois senator remains vulnerable to the "Where's the Beef" question. One of the reasons Obama has been so successful thus far has been his ability to emphasize themes over substance. Hillary, on the other hand, is the wonk's wonk, and has failed badly at trying to match her opponent's soaring rhetoric.
At long last, she should accept who she is and try to force Obama to play on her turf for a while. She should lead with substance and detail, and demand that Obama do the same. Call him out when he doesn't. This obviously does not have to be done in an argumentative way, but simply as part of a conversation between political professionals.
Similarly, Clinton should take a page out of Karl Rove's book and go after Obama's greatest strength. So he thinks he's the guy who can join Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, in a big group hug? Read some relevant quotes from the Republican leadership and its talk radio attack dogs. Ask Obama to explain very clearly how he plans to get people like that to sing Kumbaya on cue. Barack Obama wants to be a lover; make him explain when and how he would be a fighter. If he takes the bait, he undermines his own message; if he doesn't, he might appear both naïve and easily manipulated.
Finally, Hillary Clinton must reprise the debate over experience, but this time tie it to the battle against John McCain. For her purposes, the Republicans have selected exactly the right presumptive nominee. McCain's strengths, Washington smarts and foreign policy credibility, correspond precisely with Obama's weaknesses. Remind voters that the goal of the campaign is to beat the GOP, and that she can bring all of Obama strengths (symbolic and real change, a reversal of Bushism, etc.) to the table, while still being able to match McCain card for card in each of his strong suits. She does not need to convince Ohioans and Texans that Obama cannot win; she merely has to interpose enough doubt in their minds that they are unwilling to put an end to the vetting process just yet.
Debates, especially during the primary season, consist of two elements. First, there is the debate itself and the immediate reactions of viewers. Second, however, there is also the post-debate news coverage and the battle over spin. When the pundits convene, Clinton needs for them to talk about her confidence and her command of the issues. She must hope not only that Barack Obama is thrown off his game, but that the press corps recognizes and reports this fact.
If she is fortunate, Clinton may be aided by the natural desire of the media to keep the race interesting so that viewers will continue flocking to the Situation Room, as it were. On the other hand, she must overcome the inherent laziness of a profession that tends to develop scripts and stick to them. She must, in short, surprise, if not amaze.
It is a tall order, to be sure. But it is also the only hope she has left. And time is no longer her ally.