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Friday, February 22, 2008

Where a Knock Out was Needed, a Draw was Called

Last night's Democratic debate in Texas ended in what most observers are calling a draw. Clinton managed to get a hit in, but it didn't play. Trying her plagiarism charge for the nth time, Clinton said, "[L]ifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in; it's change you can Xerox."

The statement was rewarded with some booing.

The statement also illustrates a deep problem with Hillary Clinton's campaign -- it seems to be ignoring its own misfires. The plagiarism angle was test-flown in Wisconsin and it crashed. Yet, here she is, trying the failed line again. The campaign is not adjusting.

The reaction of analysts to Clinton's performance in the debate is that things look bad. Political Wire helpfully gathers a few:

Chuck Todd, for MSNBC: "Clinton ended the debate on a VERY conciliatory note and for the first time sounded like a candidate who realized she might not win. It must be an odd position for her but the confidence she exuded for just about the entire debate disappeared there at the end. I wonder if showing some vulnerability might actually help her with some undecided voters."

Marc Ambinder for The Atlantic: "This was the night where we all learned that Hillary Clinton understands the moment in history we are in, and that she is smart enough and gracious enough to realize that her party is more important than personal vanity, that there are things she just cannot say about Obama because it would hurt him in the fall, and that more likely than not, she will not win the nomination."

ABC News' Rick Klein: "If all you're doing as a voter is making a judgment based on this debate, it's easy to come away supporting Clinton. But that's not how the election works -- the fact is Sen. Clinton was looking for ways to recast the debate tonight, and we didn't get that. A few new lines on a few old arguments do not result in any changed dynamics, not by my judgment. If you're an Obama fan, you're generally pleased with the night."

Walter Shapiro in Salon: "The very tentative guess is that Hillary Clinton still managed to inspire voters in Texas and Ohio to look again, perhaps for the last time, at the candidate whom they are poised to jettison in favor of Barack Obama."

The only good news is that last from Shapiro -- and even then, the assessment is that Clinton has one last chance. The problem is that she needs a lot more than that. Not only does Clinton need to win Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, but she needs to win them convincingly. That seems unlikely.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that the polls in at least one key state are moving in the wrong direction for team Clinton. That poll puts Clinton at 48% in Texas, with Obama at 47%. ABC tells us that Texas is still about 25% undecided. Obama is closing.

"If she wins Texas and Ohio I think she will be the nominee. If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you," former president Bill Clinton told voters in Texas.

In Ohio, her margin is wider, but nowhere near a safe win and nowhere near what she needs to win. In that race, Clinton polls 50% and Obama gets 43% -- with a third undecided. As I pointed out earlier this week, Obama owned the undecided in Wisconsin. Ohio's and Wisconsin's electorates are similar. And the amount of time between now and March 2nd is time enough for the Obama ground game to eat up a good chunk of that undecided vote.

As Marc Armbinder suggests, the even Clinton sees the hurdles she must clear and has to be seriously considering the very real possibility that they're too high to clear. In her closing at the debate, Clinton -- albeit indirectly -- spoke about the possibility of her defeat. "Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends," Clinton said. "I just hope that we’ll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about."

If that sounds a little like a concession to you, there's a reason. When John Edwards suspended his campaign, his speech included the line, "But I want to say this to everyone: with Elizabeth, with my family, with my friends, with all of you and all of your support, this son of a millworker's gonna be just fine. Our job now is to make certain that America will be fine."

At this point in time, I don't see this campaign going all the way to the convention. I don't see a brokered convention. And I don't see Texas and Ohio as a "last stand" for Clinton, so much as a "Hail Mary." If she pulls this campaign up and out of this dive, it'll be the political comeback of the last fifty years -- at least. I wouldn't count her out just yet, but I wouldn't put any money on her winning either. Those chips go to Obama.

Last night's debate was considered by most to be the closing arguments in this campaign. Clinton doesn't seem to offer any real changes to her message. At this point, the whole thing looks like Obama's to lose -- which seems unlikely. "The chances of Obama doing something that's going to cause a major problem are about as low as her doing something that will turn it around," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick told AP's Rob Fournier. "When you start pressing to come back, it's usually the person who's behind who makes the mistake."

Still, no one in history has ever had a crystal ball that worked right. The unforeseen is unforeseen for a reason. The Clinton cause is not entirely hopeless, but the grounds for optimism are fading fast.


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