There’ll be time enough to write the post-mortem on the Hillary Clinton campaign. But some pundits can’t seem to wait another couple of weeks. They want it over now. Some just hate the Clintons. Others want to spare the Democratic party any more lasting damage from the nomination battle. They’re wrong, though. The Clinton campaign is deeply wounded, but the mortal blow has yet to fall.
March 4 may be the date. If Barack Obama wins either Texas or Ohio, Clinton will lose her last chance to arrest his momentum. The Obama camp has tried to set the bar higher — that Clinton must not just win the major prizes, but win them overwhelmingly. I don’t think that’s accurate. The delegate count is close today and will be close after March 4 no matter what the vote margins are. That’s not what will settle the issue. Clinton still has a shot at winning a healthy majority among the super-delegates, and even at seating additional delegates from Michigan and Florida. None of it will happen, though, if Clinton doesn’t do something dramatic.
Here’s the drama I see playing out if Clinton managed to hold on to her (declining) leads in the March 4 states. Winning even narrowly in Texas and Ohio — plus perhaps in Vermont and Rhode Island — would garner massive media coverage and breathe life back into Clinton’s staff, donors, and volunteers. Sure, the net gain in delegates would be small, but the momentum shift would be significant. Don’t discount the strong self-interest that the mainstream news media has in keeping the primary race going. It will overwhelm the partisan interest that most media elites have in seeing a unified Democratic party.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign will actually continue to make arguments against the Obama coronation, some of them potentially persuasive. For example, it will argue that while Obama has won more contests, Clinton has won the big states, including the key battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida (yeah, I know, but it’ll sound plausible). Through surrogates and independent expenditures, the Clinton team will keep pressing the argument that Obama is untested and unready in a world of dangerous adversaries and evil Republican hatchet-men. Meanwhile, Clinton herself will assume the role of victim and flash her emotional petticoats. Obama’s condescending treatment of her at several points in Thursday night’s debate shows that he can be suckered into the role of Man, rather than a man, so expect the Clinton team to try it some more.
Most Democratic pros I know support Obama, but they remain fearful. Despite — or perhaps I should say because — of the extent of conservative disdain for him, John McCain was the Republican nominee they least wanted to see. It has also occurred to many of them that, even though by many measures 2008 should be a Democratic year, the party has chosen to take a huge risk — to nominate either a freshman minority senator with an odd-sounding name or a former First Lady that half the country dislikes. So while Obama has captured their hearts, Clinton still has a shot at capturing their heads. Is she really more salable to the public as a steady hand in a time of peril? Are there enough closet racists out there to cost Democrats key states? Would a foreign-policy crisis this fall give McCain a clear opening to cold-cock the newbie? Is he truly vetted the way Hillary is?
The Clintons only have a couple of weeks, but they do, indeed, have those weeks. Any size win in Texas and Ohio on March 4 will be seen as a political comeback, and if followed by wins in Pennsylvania in April and North Carolina and Indiana in early May, the dream of a Clinton Restoration would stay alive.
– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation