Hillary can't win, but the Clinton machine rolls on

Pennsylvania is a state she should win, but even here, Obama is threatening

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Richard Reeve, biographer of U.S. presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, recently wrote that the role of the U.S. president isn't to run the country, it's to lead the nation.

And there, in that elegant turn of phrase, is the essential difference between the presidential candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She is running as the candidate of experience. He is the candidate of hope and change.

She cites her 35 years in public life, most of them as first lady in Arkansas and Washington. She'll be there to answer the red phone at 3 a.m., and says she's "ready on day one." He quotes Martin Luther King on the urgent need of the hour, and says "our time is now."

The central strategic premise of her campaign was her inevitability, and when it turned out she wasn't inevitable, that premise collapsed. His campaign began as an insurgency, and became a mainstream movement.

It was supposed to be her turn, but it might not be her time.

She's certainly resilient, and tough enough to be president. From "words are cheap" to "shame on you, Barack Obama," she doesn't mince words. The net effect of all this, as the New York Times' Maureen Dowd wrote last week, might be to toughen Obama up for the barrage he'll face from the Republicans in the fall.

That the Clintons will say and do anything to win is not in question. The other day she actually said there was no such thing as a pledged delegate to the Democratic convention, duly elected in primaries. Then she argued again that the disqualified Michigan delegates should be seated at the convention, when Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot in the primary that didn't count. Her husband has actually argued that if the Democrats had the winner-take-all system of the Republicans in the primaries, rather than a proportional distribution of delegates according to votes in each state, that she would be ahead. That's the Clintons, always moving the goalposts, never out of the game.

But the end of the game, or the endgame, might be approaching in the Pennsylvania primary in two weeks. This is another of the big industrial states she has been winning with regularity. It's a rust-belt state - trade and jobs are a big issue. The demographic is older, with more women, and predominantly white between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. She needs to win by double digits. And until recently, she was ahead by double digits, by more than 20 points in some polls.

But that was before Obama's six-day bus tour of the state, an excellent adventure that included bad bowling and rich chocolate. It was before Senator Bob Casey endorsed him and introduced him around the state. It was before his media buy kicked in - he's outspending her in Pennsylvania television markets by a margin of 4-1. It was before his ground game kicked in to sign up thousands of Republicans and independents to register as Democrats.

It was also before her Tuzla moment, as well as the Clintons' disclosure they made $109 million since leaving the White House in 2001, to say nothing of her dumping her chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, for backing a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement that she opposes.

As a result of all this, her poll numbers have tanked in the last week, in Pennsylvania as well as nationwide. Yesterday's Gallup daily tracking poll had Obama moving out to a 52-43 lead nationally, in a race he led only 49-46 on the weekend. In Pennsylvania, her 20 and 25-point leads of four weeks ago are a memory. Most polls now have her lead down to low single digits, five points or less, and in a couple of polls Obama has pulled even.

The problem with her story about ducking bullets on the runway at Tuzla in 1996 was twofold. First, CBS had tape of her dodging flowers being presented by children, and it ended up on YouTube. Second, millions of Americans have worn their country's uniform and know the sound of bullets whizzing by their heads. The $109 million is a real number, and it certainly says a lot for Bill Clinton's drawing power on the lecture and author circuit. For a couple who arrived in Washington 16 years ago with hardly any equity of their own, they've done all right.

As for Mark Penn, her pollster and strategist, he was impossibly conflicted between running a presidential race and his day job as CEO of Burson-Marsteller, the public relations behemoth that represents Colombia in the free trade file, or did until the client fired them last weekend.

So much for NAFTA as an issue in Pennsylvania.

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