POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shaken Clinton Camp Prepares For Trench Warfare After NH

Hillary Clinton's campaign, anticipating probable defeat here in New Hampshire on January 8, is gearing up for an extended trench-warfare battle against Barack Obama.

The former First Lady is planning to fight Obama in South Carolina on January 26, and in the gargantuan nationwide primary on Tuesday, February 5 -- with contests in 19 states, including New York, California, New Jersey, Georgia, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Colorado. If she remains competitive, Clinton's plan is to continue to compete in Louisiana on February 9, in Virginia and Maryland on February 12, in Wisconsin on February 19, in Ohio on March 4 -- and beyond, if necessary.

In an approach redolent of Walter Mondale's 1984 "Where's the Beef?" tactic against Gary Hart, Clinton has adopted the less memorable slogan "Rhetoric vs. Results, Talk vs. Action."

The Clinton campaign is sparing no effort to pressure the media to lean on Obama's perceived vulnerabilities. Looking to leverage Obama's slender resume, a Clinton operative argued to HuffPost that the campaign will be able to demonstrate that "Obama is just not a plausible person in this environment of international peril," and that the longer the primary campaign can be extended, the better chance Clinton will have to prove that "there is not even a second level to Obama, there is no depth."

The results of this gambit are far from certain. Many political observers here see Hillary on the ropes. "I think Iowa was the best she is going to do. Now she has the stink of a loser on her," said an official from the upper echelons of the 2004 Democratic campaign. In the upcoming states, voters "are just now starting to pay attention, and all they know is that he [Obama] is a winner and she's a loser."

Political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute warned, "Tactical maneuvering at this point is of limited value, but all [Clinton] may be able to do for the moment is to try tactical stuff, and lash herself to the mast to withstand the [Obama] wave."

Like Mondale in 1984, Clinton is configuring her campaign to win in states where independents cannot vote. "Clinton got killed among independents and those few Republicans who crossed over," an Iowa operative noted about last Thursday's caucuses. After this Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, where independents can cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican contest, "We are just going to go to the big Democratic states with closed primaries" says a member of the Clinton inner circle.

Of the upcoming nineteen February 5 primaries and caucuses, however, ten are "open" (meaning that independents can vote for a Democrat) and only nine are "closed" (meaning independents are barred).

The question all over Democratic circles today is, what can Hillary do? Is time running out? The consensus is that she has "a real uphill fight -- a tough pull," according to observers.

The Clinton campaign counters that it is banking on the support of voters with "deep and ingrained loyalty" to the Democratic party and to the presidency of Bill Clinton -- especially on the support of poor to lower-middle class Democratic voters who are seeking government aid to pay for health care and other necessities, and who can be convinced that Clinton is best equipped to win enactment of such policies.

Many of these voters, however, are black, and African American voters have, over the course of the past year, been moving steadily to Obama. While both Bill and Hillary Clinton have had substantial support in the African-American community - Bill Clinton got roughly 90 percent of the black vote in his two presidential elections -- there could be an Obama groundswell among minority voters. "If Obama wins two white states in a row, that is going to send a signal to African Americans around the country. The African-American population is going to be excited beyond belief by the prospect of a black president," says Ornstein.

"The sixty-four thousand dollar question," according to a Democratic operative, is "whether whites will continue to vote for Obama once the novelty wears off."

Most of those interviewed for this story do not believe the novelty will wear off.

"If you put the three elements together, Obama's appeal to independents, some cross-over Republicans, and combine that with a really energized African American community, that is a pretty powerful new math for the Democrats," says Bill Carrick, a California Democratic consultant. "I think he [Obama] has got a pretty interesting coalition for the general election."

Emory University political scientist Merle Black notes that Obama is "not presenting himself as a Jesse Jackson, he is not an Al Sharpton; he is presenting himself as a Democrat who happens to be African American. There are very few white voters who would not find him very likeable." If Obama does have trouble with white voters, Black said it will be because of his "liberal record more than race."

* * *

A number of Clinton operatives and supporters report privately that her campaign organization is beset with internal turmoil, and that Mark Penn remains in serious danger of losing his position as the senior and dominant strategist. "There are a lot of people saying Mark Penn is going to be thrown under the bus," said one source.

On the other hand, there are dissidents from this view. Norm Ornstein told HuffPost, "I am not one of those who joins in the pillorying of Mark Penn. They played the hand they had, and that hand was built around experience and nostalgia for the Clinton administration. If they had switched to a message of change six months ago, it would not have been any more credible then than it is now."

* * *

Clinton's calculation that she can best confront Obama in the coming closed Democratic primaries is based in part on detailed analysis of the Iowa results.

The Iowa entrance polls conducted for all the major television networks - including ABC, CBS, NBC, AND CNN -- show that registered Democrats were more supportive of Clinton than either independents or the small number of Republicans who chose to participate in the Democratic caucus.

She virtually tied Obama among registered Democrats (31-32), while decisively losing independents (17-41) and Republicans (10-44). John Edwards beat her by slightly smaller, but still substantial, margins among Republicans and independents, while losing to her among Democrats.

In addition to the fact that ten of the Super Tuesday states are conducting open primaries or caucuses, there is a major short term problem: the next primary on January 26 in South Carolina is not only open, but has a large African American population likely to be drawn to Obama.

In past Democratic primary contests, the kind of coalition Obama has put together - well-educated, culturally liberal, and relatively affluent whites, eschewing the "common touch" -- was inadequate to produce victories -- not only in the case of Hart, but also in Paul Tsongas' 1992's race against Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley's race against Al Gore in 2000.

In the current election, however, Obama has at least preliminarily shown the ability to cobble together a coalition bridging the gap between upscale voters and minorities to form a winning primary-caucus alliance.

Obama is capitalizing on one of the most powerful trends in the composition of the Democratic electorate: the conversion from the GOP of growing legions of relatively affluent, suburban and urban, socially tolerant white professionals and so-called knowledge workers - ranging from pre-school teachers and data entry technicians to nuclear physicists -- who have become a major constituency, and a driving force in Democratic Party policy making.

This movement of what some have termed "the creative class" to the Democrats was sharply accelerated during the administration of Bill Clinton, and has grown stronger during the second half of the Bush years, as opposition to the war, to Bush's conservative social policies and to administration reluctance to deal with such issues as global warming has given Democrats a major boost in support. Whether Mrs. Clinton, Edwards, or Obama will benefit most from this restructured center-left coalition is not yet clear.

* * *

In private, some of Clinton's supporters are deeply disdainful of Obama. "He is the candidate of the 'identity left'," said one, dismissively, angered by what he sees as Obama's claim that the "he's built a new majority that rises above partisanship, that somehow through his magical presence, we can rise above conflict." This Clinton supporter described Obama as afflicted with naïve idealism similar to that of Jimmy Carter.

The burden on Clinton will be, according to this strategist, to show that "this guy [Obama] is amateur hour, that it's all glitz. He thinks you can get there but you don't have to go through anything. It's dreamy, but it mainly appeals to independents."

Clinton's task has been further complicated by the continued presence in the race of John Edwards. Edwards has taken the unexpected role in New Hampshire of acting as Obama's attack dog against the New York Senator, allowing Obama to remain above the fray.

While Edwards, who beat Clinton by three-tenths of a percentage point in Iowa, currently appears destined to finish third here on Tuesday, he did force Clinton onto the defensive in Saturday's debate, calling her the advocate of the "status quo." He escalated the conflict today, charging that Clinton and her campaign "have no conscience" in turning a blind eye to the human suffering that has motivated his campaign, distorting his record of commitment to help the ill and injured with proposals for more comprehensive, broadly available medical treatment.

Edwards contended on the campaign trail this morning that he is determined to stay in the fight all the way to the Democratic convention. In the latest CNN-WMUR poll of New Hampshire Democrats, however, Edwards has lost ground, falling to16 percent, well behind Obama's 39 percent, and Clinton's 29 percent.