Hillary Clinton and her campaign clearly believe that they stemmed the mighty Obama tide on March 4 with a heaping dose of fear.
The fear that they stirred, best encapsulated in the sure-to-be-immortal “red phone” ad in Texas, supposedly worked on parallel tracks: Some voters simply bought into the notion that Mr. Obama is frighteningly ill-prepared to handle a crisis; others may not have agreed with that but grew fearful that their fellow citizens, in the face of a similar and concerted Republican assault in the fall, would.
And now that they believe they’ve got a hit on their hands, the Clinton forces are taking their strategy national, hoping to scare up some surprise wins in the late primary season and, ultimately, to make those pivotal superdelegates think long and hard before signing off on the nomination of someone as “risky” as Mr. Obama.
Mrs. Clinton proclaimed that she has passed the “commander in chief” threshold and that John McCain “certainly” has done so as well. “You’ll have to ask Senator Obama with respect to his candidacy,” she added.
And early this week, her campaign arranged a conference call with a quartet of military and national security heavyweights, with an eye toward turning Mr. Obama’s apparent advantage on the issue of Iraq against him. Specifically, they played up the revelation that Samantha Power, Mr. Obama’s now-former national security adviser, had suggested in an interview that his plan to withdraw troops as president could be subject to change after consultation with military commanders.
“This is going to be a central test of presidential leadership,” Wesley Clark said during the call. “What I have heard from the Obama campaign is a matter of serious concern.”
Mrs. Clinton and her campaign realize that they won’t catch Mr. Obama in pledged delegates during the primary season, even with do-overs in Florida and Michigan. Surpassing him in the cumulative popular vote is a long shot, too.
But winning Pennsylvania and a handful of other states and finishing within a few inches of Mr. Obama in both categories? It’s certainly doable. Then, the challenge for Mrs. Clinton would be convincing a decisive majority of the uncommitted superdelegates to pick her over Mr. Obama.
Her game plan now is to spend the remaining months of the primary season inventing reasons and rationales for superdelegates to snub Mr. Obama and, by extension, the majority of primary voters and caucus-goers. Finishing the primary season on a winning streak and convincing the world that it’s the result of widespread panic at the prospect of an Obama nomination is key to this strategy.
But while the Clinton campaign thinks it has stumbled onto political gold with its attacks on Mr. Obama, history suggests a different phenomenon could be at play, and that we have simply entered the buyer’s-remorse phase of the primary cycle, which begins when a candidate who is new to the national scene first emerges as the likely Democratic nominee.
It’s something with which the Clintons themselves are intimately familiar. In 1992, Bill Clinton seemed to wrap up the Democratic nomination with a thorough rout of Paul Tsongas in the southern-dominated Super Tuesday, and then again a week later in Illinois and Michigan. Tsongas suspended his campaign, leaving the erratic Jerry Brown as Mr. Clinton’s sole remaining foe. Since Mr. Brown trailed by about 800 delegates, his candidacy was given up for dead by the press, which turned its focus to the impending Clinton-George H. W. Bush fall campaign.
And then, out of the blue, Mr. Brown won the Connecticut primary, still one of the most spectacular upsets in the modern primary era. The verdict was deemed a vote of no confidence in the scandal-scarred Mr. Clinton’s general-election viability, and the next primary, in New York, turned into a de facto referendum on whether Mr. Clinton was prepared to lead his party and to lead his country.
“So the question before the party as a whole,” Howell Raines wrote in The New York Times, “has less to do with arithmetic than with the more profound question of whether Democratic and independent voters are going to swallow Mr. Clinton as a viable candidate who can beat President Bush.”
When Mr. Clinton won New York, the issue was considered settled. The key for Mr. Clinton was simply keeping his cool and showing some toughness during the two-week New York campaign. His performance reassured Democrats, who had been inclined to back him all along but who had paused before fully committing themselves.
That’s about the spot Mr. Obama is now in, ahead in the delegate and popular-vote race but under intense assault from his opponent and the media. But as with Mr. Clinton 16 years ago, a majority of Democrats seem to like him more than his competition. Now he has to reassure them that their instincts aren’t wrong.