Bob Kerrey, the onetime Clinton family antagonist who now supports Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, believes that “if things stay the way they are now” his candidate will withdraw from the race sometime between now and June 3, when the primary season concludes in Montana and South Dakota.
He did say that there was no reason for Clinton to yield to pressure to get out of the race before then, even as a famous South Dakotan, George McGovern, renounced his support of Clinton and called on her to quit.
“Speaking as someone who’s been a candidate, it’s offensive to me to hear pundits talking about how Hillary ought to get out,” said Kerrey, a former two-term Nebraska senator who is now the president of the New School in New York.
“She will make that call. She’s fought a tough campaign and has been giving this her all for more than a year, while all the other pundits telling her to get out have been taking vacations and having their weekend off.”
If anything, Kerrey suggested, calls for Clinton to quit are bound to backfire, only compelling her to dig in her heels: “The paradox here is that the more nasty things that pundits say about her and try to push her out of the race, the harder it is to get her out of the race.”
Kerrey was in a somewhat similar situation 16 years ago, when he sought the Democratic nomination. The initial favorite, his campaign struggled to develop a clear theme and focus, and he quickly found himself running in third place, behind Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas. He finished a distant third in New Hampshire, rebounded a week later with a surprise win in South Dakota, but then faltered badly on “Junior Tuesday,” barely registering in Maryland, Georgia and Colorado. That prompted Kerrey to quit the campaign, but rumors persist to this day that his harsh criticisms of Bill Clinton during that campaign ultimately cost him the number-two spot on Clinton’s ticket.
He said that Clinton actually fared better in North Carolina than he had expected her to (she lost to Barack Obama by a 56-42 percent spread), but acknowledged that his assessment is at odds with the prevailing interpretation.
“She finished poorer than expected last night,” he said. “He exceeded expectations, she came up short of expectations, and his delegate margin grew. So if you’re trying to get to 2,025 delegates and the person you’re running against is getting closer than you, that’s not good.”
Asked how Clinton could possibly achieve a victory now, Kerrey pointed to her push to count the results from outlaw Florida and Michigan primaries from January and to seat convention delegation based on those results. Doing so might ultimately allow her to claim a popular-vote victory (mostly because Obama’s name wasn’t on the Michigan ballot) and to cut his pledged delegate advantage by about 50 (although there is a consensus that he’ll still hold a 100-plus pledged delegate advantage even with both states counted).
“At the very least, you should count the popular vote in Florida,” Kerrey said, noting that both candidates were on the ballot there. He also stressed her advantage this primary season in larger population states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and said Obama’s success in caucuses should be viewed skeptically since they “aren’t a good measure of popular support in a general election.”
“There’s a case (for Clinton),” he said. “I’m not saying that it’s going to be a case that persuades superdelegates or Democrats in the remaining states. That’s an open question. There’s no question that it’s an uphill fight.”
Kerrey also dismissed suggestions that the protracted nominating contest has caused lasting harm to the party and weakened Obama should he ultimately secure the nomination.
“He’s stronger than he was before,” he said. “Hillary Clinton didn’t invent Jeremiah Wright. Barack Obama was going to have to face that. And he faced it eloquently and strongly. Imagine if he’d had to face that in October? He’s toast.”
He added: “The fact that she stayed in the race increases the odds that we will win in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the fall.”
While he stressed that “in politics, anything can happen,” Kerrey said he recognizes that Clinton now faces long odds and that she is likely to come up short. But he said he’s confident that she’ll know when to pull the plug and that she’ll be a team player in the fall.
“At some point between now and the third of June, if things stay the way they are now, my guess is that she’ll make that call, make a gracious concession and then rally behind Barack Obama and rally her supporters behind Barack Obama,” he said
At that point, Kerrey said, party unity will depend more on Obama than on Clinton: “If it appears to her supporters that he’s treating her badly, that’s his worst nightmare.”