Downfall of an 'inevitable' candidate

By Philip Gailey, Times Columnist
Published February 17, 2008

Hillary Clinton is running scared, but don't count her out yet. For all her recent setbacks, Clinton still could beat the odds and emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee. It won't be easy, and it may not be pretty, especially if she has to do it in a way that ignores the voice of primary voters.

So how does she turn it around? By somehow harvesting the delegates from the outlawed primary contests in Michigan and Florida? Or seizing the nomination through a back-room deal with unelected superdelegates? The best way, of course, would be to let the voters decide the party's nominee in the remaining primary contests.

Last year, when Clinton was seen as the "inevitable" nominee, she joined other Democratic candidates in boycotting Michigan and Florida, insisting that their votes didn't matter. Now, however, she has decided those delegates should count after all. She desperately needs them in her race against Barack Obama, who appears to be closing in on the nomination. Other leading Democrats disagree. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will serve as chair of the Democratic National Convention in August, said last week that the disputed Florida and Michigan delegates should not decide the nomination.

"I don't think that any states that operated outside the rules of the party can be dispositive of who the nominee is," Pelosi said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

What about the superdelegates? Will they save Clinton if the nomination battle goes all the way to the convention? These are party pooh-bahs, including members of Congress and governors, who are free to vote any way they choose, the voters' choice be damned. The last thing Democrats need is for politicians to override the will of the voters. Pelosi said it would be "a problem for the party" if superdelegates decided the nomination.

Frankly, it would be a disaster for Democrats.

It's not even clear Clinton can count on superdelegates who have been in her camp from the start. Last week, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, a civil rights icon and Clinton's most prominent black supporter, told the New York Times he planned to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Obama in hopes of preventing an ugly and divisive fight at the August convention.

"In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit," Lewis said. "Something is happening in America and people are prepared and ready to make a great leap."

For Clinton, Lewis' statement was the equivalent of losing a major primary.

But wait a minute - what about the millions of voters who will have their say in the next few weeks? Maybe they will decide to rewrite the script for this extraordinary campaign year. Even Clinton's own supporters acknowledge that the candidate is two key contests away from knowing her political fate. If she loses Texas and Ohio on March 4, it's over for her.

If Clinton does end up losing this historic nomination battle, I think I know the moment her once seemingly invincible candidacy began to founder.

I don't think Clinton ever completely recovered from her disastrous performance at a Democratic candidate debate in Philadelphia on Oct. 30. The former first lady had sailed through previous debates unscathed. She exuded confidence and a command of issues. She won rave reviews for her debate performances.

And then, in Philadelphia, Tim Russert asked a simple question that exposed perhaps her definitive weakness as a candidate - an unwillingness to give straight answers to politically sensitive questions, whether it be on her vote for the Iraq war or how she would shore up Social Security. Russert asked all the candidates on stage if they supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to issue drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Most answered yes or no, but Clinton was all over the road.

She first seemed to defend the governor's proposal, then suggested she opposed it. Finally, when Russert pressed her for a direct answer, Clinton replied, "You know, Tim, this where everybody plays gotcha."

In that moment, her inevitability gave way to vulnerability.

From day one of the campaign Clinton seemed to have everything going for her, including money, organization and celebrity. But the one thing she didn't have was authenticity or a message that connected with the mood of the country. She offered experience and competence. Obama offered hope and change. In the battle of messages, it was no contest.

The Hillary Clinton we have seen in this campaign was created and packaged by her pollsters and strategists. She was cautious to a fault. When it came to addressing controversial issues, she was programmed to obfuscate, dodge and weave. The Clinton way was triangulation. It was hard to listen to her in a debate and not wonder what she really believes. At times she seemed to be trying to conceal the real Hillary Clinton from voters.

Meanwhile, let's hold off on writing Clinton's political obituary. This contest is not over, and I can't wait to see the next twist in the narrative of this extraordinary presidential campaign.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address isgailey@sptimes.com.