Aggression suits the Clinton campaign.
In the days before a much anticipated Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Thursday night, political observers and pundits asked if Barack Obama could capitalize on weeks of bad news and missteps by Hillary Clinton, whose veneer of inevitability had begun showing fractures. Instead, after an initial attack by Obama, Ms. Clinton fought back and handed Mr. Obama and other Democratic rivals a thrashing.
Then Ms. Clinton spent the next few days in Nevada on something of a streak, hitting Mr. Obama again and again and again.
After going on the offensive in Thursday night’s debate, she celebrated with champagne and a big dinner at the Four Seasons with her aides. She then spoke to 2,200 Nevada Democrats at the Clark County Jefferson Jackson dinner at the Paris hotel, in a convention room near “le champagne slots,” “le salon des tables” and advertisements for “Ooh La La: a Fantastique Topless Revue.” She spoke last at a podium furnished with a giant wooden gavel, and received the biggest hand.
“She’s my girl,” Dorothy Dykes, a 66-year-old pastor from Henderson, Nevada, said after leaving the room. “She’s the sharpest tool in the box.”
Some of the senior members of her campaign team, including the usually hip hop-and-R&B-allergic Mark Penn, felt festive enough to make an appearance at a CNN after-party at the night club of the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel. Some Edwards and Biden campaign workers came to drink. No Obama staffers could be seen.
The next morning, on Friday, Ms. Clinton flew to Washington to vote and then in the evening flew back across the country to campaign outside Reno, where the nearly 1,400 people who attended the event there found her in particularly ebullient spirits.
Then, in the early hours on Saturday, a column by the conservative columnist Bob Novak went online, citing an unnamed source claiming that “agents of Sen. Hillary Clinton are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent for the party’s presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama.”
Reporters awoke to a statement responding to the column from Mr. Obama himself.
“During our debate in Las Vegas on Thursday, we heard Senator Clinton rail against the politics of ‘throwing mud,’” began the statement, which was seven paragraphs long. Mr. Obama demanded that, in the interests of “her own reputation,” Ms. Clinton either divulge the information or say that there is none. “She of all people, having complained so often about ‘the politics of personal destruction,’ should move quickly to either stand by or renounce these tactics.”
He added, “The cause of change in this country will not be deterred or sidetracked by the old ‘Swift boat’ politics.”
At an event that morning inside a workshop of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, as reporters discussed their own theories about what was going on, a member of the Clinton advance team ordered everyone to stay on one side of a worktable and explained what Ms. Clinton planned to do in the room. (“She’ll look at the equipment.”) When a cameraman asked whether he could move to another part of the room for a different shot, the campaign worker responded coldly, “This is what has been discussed.”)
A few minutes later, Ms. Clinton, dressed in a brown pantsuit and turquoise shirt and jewelry, walked into the room talking about “areas of expertise,” to steelworkers. She looked at the equipment and then, almost as if surprised at their presence, looked at the press standing across the five-foot-wide table, all eagerly pointing their cameras, boom mics and recording devices at her face with questions ready about the Obama statement.
Instead, Ms. Clinton talked with the union leaders about power tools, and her belief in something called “helmets for hardhats.” She nodded mechanically as one sheet-metal worker said, “You name it, if it’s made out of metal we can build it.”
When she finally addressed the press, she told them that she was going to leave them to talk to some apprenticing metalworkers about getting their math scores up.
Reporters pressed Ms. Clinton’s aides about whether she would respond to Mr. Obama’s statement. After a few minutes, while cameras flashed in a room guarded by secret service across the hall, Jamie Smith, a staffer on the Clinton press team, returned and said, “Yeah, we’re not doing any avail.”
In the building next door, surrounded by dusty flat fields at the foot of the Sunrise Mountains, about one hundred steelworkers dressed in yellow shirts stood waiting for Ms. Clinton to accept their endorsement. Before the event started, a statement from the Clinton campaign dropped into reporters’ inboxes.
“Once again Senator Obama is echoing Republican talking points, this time from Bob Novak,” began the statement. “A Republican leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another. Experienced Democrats see this for what it is. Others get distracted and thrown off their games. Voters should be concerned about the readiness of any Democrat inexperienced enough to fall for this.