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What might have been for Clinton

By Adam C. Smith, Times Political Editor
Published March 4, 2008


As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton today heads into critical and perhaps final primary elections in Texas and Ohio, it's time for some Tuesday morning quarterbacking.

There are umpteen ways to second-guess a once-daunting campaign that proved unprepared for this long, drawn-out primary battle. But we're focused on one critical decision that was made on Sept. 1: joining her rivals in snubbing Florida Democrats.

"We believe Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina play a unique and special role in the nominating process," her campaign said in a statement, paying homage to the Democratic Party leaders in four states officially allowed to hold primaries and caucuses before Feb. 5. "Thus, we will be signing the pledge to adhere to the DNC approved nominating calendar."

And with that Saturday afternoon release, Clinton threw away the high ground she's now trying to occupy in arguing that Florida's Jan. 29 primary should count and Florida's delegates to the national convention should be seated.

At the time, she was the frontrunner. She had the standing, the financing and the motive Florida was always Hillary-friendly to refuse to abandon Sunshine State voters, even if no delegates were at stake.

"Hillary Clinton discarded her ace in the hole when she joined the Florida boycott," said Chris Hand, a Democratic strategist in Jacksonville. "She could have shamed the other Democratic candidates into competing here, and a meaningful win would have given her campaign a powerful claim to viability. It's hard to discount someone who wins both Florida and California."

Democratic strategist Karl Koch of Tampa argues that Clinton could have made a compelling case that winning in November is too important to Democrats to antagonize Florida and Michigan, which also moved its primary.

In hindsight, Koch said, Clinton should have spoken up early and loudly against the Democratic National Committee stripping away all of Florida and Michigan's delegates as punishment for scheduling early primaries.

"I would have been arguing from Day 1 that what Florida and Michigan did was wrong, but I'm not going to punish the people of Florida because their political leaders made some mistakes," Koch said.

The Republican National Committee faced the same problem but only cut Florida's delegate count in half, rather than stripping the state entirely. As a result, Republican voters in Florida retained a voice in selecting the party's nominee.

A couple of top Clinton strategists, Harold Ickes and Tina Flournoy, personally voted for the strictest possible punishment against Florida.

Weeks after that decision, the state parties of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina called on all Democratic presidential candidates to sign a pledge not to do any campaigning, except fundraising, in Florida. Clinton calculated that antagonizing party bosses in places like Iowa and South Carolina was much riskier than brushing off Florida Democrats.

Which raises another major Clinton decision ripe for second-guessing: playing big in Iowa. Iowa wasn't considered fertile ground for Clinton, but her campaign focused heavily on the country's first contest, spending lots of money and raising expectations of a Clinton romp to the nomination.

"That first pierce of inevitability has a big impact, and Obama gained a lot of momentum right from the get-go," said Tampa Democratic consultant Bernie Campbell, referring to Obama beating Clinton in the opening contest.

Hindsight is easy, of course, but think where this race might stand if Clinton had bypassed the Iowa caucuses and instead made New Hampshire, which she won, the first real faceoff with Obama.

"Dedicating significant funding to Iowa will draw money away from other important states," Clinton's former deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, argued in a controversial leaked memo last spring.

"Spending Sen. Clinton's time and money in other states will be more efficient and increase our chances of winning the nomination."

Lately the Clinton campaign has been arguing that while Obama consistently wins activist-dominated party caucuses, she does better in mega states that decide presidential elections - like Florida, and she hopes Ohio today.

"November of 2008 is going to be an election, not a caucus," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Monday.

Clinton will have a strong argument for being the party standard-bearer against Obama if she wins both Ohio and Texas today, but the cold numbers still look grim for the New York senator. Starting today with Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont and ending June 7 with Puerto Rico, she would have to overwhelmingly win all 16 caucuses and primaries to catch up with Obama on the delegate count.

Only a couple of weeks ago, senior Clinton advisers predicted they would come out of Tuesday effectively tied with Obama in delegates. They've since backed off that and won't say whether Clinton will continue campaigning if she fails to win both Ohio and Texas.

"They keep trying to move the goal posts, but at some point you run out of field," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Monday.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

[Last modified March 3, 2008, 22:46:03]

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