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.
“There is only one campaign in this race that has actually engaging in the very practice that Senator Obama is decrying, and it’s his. We have no idea what Mr. Novak’s item is about and reject it totally.”
Clinton spokesman Jay Carson walked in seconds later, smiling as reporters pointed their recorders at his mouth. He then quickly picked up where the statement left off.
“A Democratic candidate should be smart enough not to fall into traps,” he said, adding, “And if you don’t know how to do that in a primary you are going to be in a world of hurt in the general. Barack Obama should get back to or should try to get back to the politics he espoused early on in this campaign about being hopeful.”
As Ms. Clinton was being introduced on stage, the Obama campaign sent another statement, this time from campaign manger David Plouffe.
“The ‘experience’ America’s looking for today is not the practiced Washington art of evasion and deflection,” he said. “Once again, the Clinton campaign refuses to answer two simple, direct questions: Are "agents" of their campaign spreading these rumors? And do they have "scandalous" information that they are not releasing?
“Yes or no?”
A small scrum surrounded Mr. Carson again. This time he smiled even more broadly. “No and no,” he replied.
After that the Obama press office went silent.
Then Ms. Clinton delivered a shot of her own from the stage.
“We had a great debate here the other night,” she said. “It’s exciting to be in Vegas where a lot of things happen. And this time what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas.”
The yellow shirts laughed.
“We finally got into some real issues,” she added. “For example, my health care plan covers every American. Senator Obama’s doesn’t. He didn’t make that decision. Well I think it takes strength and experience to make the tough decisions.”
“She’s holding her own against all those guys,” Sandra Fincher, a 64-year-old Clinton supporter and the wife of steelworker, said at the rally. “They’re afraid of her.”
After the steel workers’event, Clinton drove over to a rally in the cafeteria of the Rancho High School, where a giant mural of the school’s Ranch Rams stood across from homemade signs reading “Hope, Respect, Clinton” and “Hispanos Unidos con Hillary.”
She spoke to the mostly Latino audience about how Nevada had been chosen as a primary state to “show the diversity of America,” how she was “proud to have so much Latino support” and how important Las Vegas was to her because “we can’t afford any bystanders.
Her voice was getting hoarse and time was getting tight. She took some questions, mostly fawning, and received flowers from people in the crowd. (She left them behind on a blue seat backstage.) Her caravan sped off to the airport, for California and then Iowa, where the Obama campaign still had reason to be hopeful.