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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Clinton: Why it went so wrong


WASHINGTON - A year and a half ago, a senior Clinton ally, speaking privately to reporters, made the following prediction: "She's the favorite, but Obama's so good. Hillary only needs to make one or two mistakes and he'll be the nominee."

To attribute the state of the race to Clinton's mistakes alone is to discount the quality of Obama's campaign and the depth of sentiment for change that exists in the Democratic party.

But Clinton insiders and analysts say the former first lady's missteps have contributed mightily to Obama's nearly insurmountable lead in overall delegates.

Here are 10 reasons the once-prohibitive front-runner is finding herself on the verge of elimination:

While Obama has stuck with an elegant hope-and-change message from start to finish, Clinton skittered from theme to theme before settling on a successful populist-with-a-punch formula.

One of Clinton's first hires was top strategist Mark Penn -- a cautious pollster known for slicing and dicing the electorate into "soccer moms" and other demographic niches. Penn's approach, campaign insiders say, was a fragmented, a la carte campaign whose message varied widely from day to day, leaving voters with a blurry image of an already complicated candidate.

"I like Mark but to have the same guy collect the data and interpret it was a big mistake," a longtime friend of both Clintons told Newsday. "Penn was a good match with Bill in the White House because Bill could warm things up and humanize Penn's strategy. Hillary doesn't have those same skills. It was a bad fit."

Penn's insistence that Clinton emphasize her toughness caused an internal tug-of-war over her image, with communications chief Howard Wolfson urging Clinton to stress her softer side.

2. THE INEVITABILITY FALLACY Clinton and her inner circle, including then-campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, simply believed there was virtually no way she could lose.

One longtime Clinton confidant said top staffers began to realize Obama was a "serious threat" by the early fall of 2007 but that "the candidate herself didn't really believe she could be beaten" until her third-place finish in Iowa.

"The original sin for Hillary was the sin of pride," said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University.

3. NO GROUND GAME Overconfidence led to under-planning. After spending an estimated $25 million in Iowa, the Clinton campaign focused on big prizes on Super Tuesday -- New York, California, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

But those impressive wins masked a cash shortage and a catastrophic failure to plan for caucuses and primaries in smaller states. Even a modest effort in February would have resulted in significant delegate pickups and stopped Obama from racking up 11 straight wins -- which netted him 123 delegates, a healthy percentage of his current lead.

4. GOING OFFLINE When Clinton was assembling her campaign team in late 2006, strategist Joe Trippi sat down with Clinton advisers for a job interview. Trippi, who would later run John Edwards' campaign, suggested that Clinton center her campaign on a Web-based effort to collect $100 each from 1 million women around the country. Clinton's staff rejected the plan, opting to mix some online solicitations with a more traditional pitch to big donors.

Obama adopted his own version of the Trippi plan and changed the rules of the fundraising game. He's out-earned Clinton by $233.8 million to $172.8 million through April.

5. WHY WOULDN'T SHE BAN LOBBYIST DONATIONS? For more than a year, John Edwards and Barack Obama battered Clinton for not joining them in eschewing donations from federally registered lobbyists -- even though such donors made up a relatively small percentage of her take.

People close to Clinton say she thought the idea was silly and cynical. Yet by refusing to symbolically reject the Washington establishment, Clinton allowed her foes to paint her as a creature of the beltway and missed a chance to side with the forces of change.

6. STICKING WITH SPITZER Clinton reluctantly backed former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's disastrous proposal for illegal immigrants driver's licenses.

Her inability to clearly articulate her opinion on the plan led to a game-changing meltdown at an Oct. 30, 2007, debate in Philadelphia, triggering her slide in the polls.

7. SINBAD, SNIPERS AND HILLARY'S TRUSTWORTHINESS No single event more compromised Clinton's legitimacy than her off-handed remark that she had braved sniper fire during a goodwill trip to Bosnia in the mid-1990s as first lady.

Clinton stuck with her story even when reporters pointed out 1) that comedian Sinbad and daughter Chelsea were on the trip and 2) videotape existed of her landing on the runway, greeting children and walking cheerfully to her motorcade.

8. SENDING BILL TO SOUTH CAROLINA The former president's disastrous week in the Palmetto State began with him angrily defending his quip that Obama's anti-war record was a "fairy tale" -- and ending with his suggestion that Obama's campaign would suffer the same fate as Jesse Jackson's quixotic efforts in the 1980s.

The result was a wholesale defection of black voters to Obama and the ravaging of the former president's reputation with a vital party constituency.

It's possible that Clinton's failure to retain even a fraction of African-American support could provide Obama with the final edge in the nationwide popular vote. Nearly 20 percent of South Carolina blacks voted for the former first lady on Jan. 26 -- but fewer than 10 percent backed her in North Carolina three months later.

9. SETTING UP A "WAR ROOM" INSTEAD OF MAKING PEACE WITH THE PRESS Hillary Clinton's biggest contribution to national political tactics was her invention of the "War Room" -- a rapid response team to deal with negative press stories during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign. But that approach, many in her camp now recognize, did little to warm her relationship with a skeptical, sometimes hostile press.

The campaign's early habit of denying reporters access to the candidate -- and haranguing scribes who asked tough questions -- added to an already tense atmosphere.

10. IT WAS ALL ABOUT IRAQ AFTER ALL Even though the economy has supplanted Iraq as the top issue, Clinton's support of the 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion created a hard-core constituency of anti-Clinton Democrats.

Without Clinton's longtime support of the war, Obama would have had a tougher time galvanizing his core supporters: online donors, students and anti-war groups like, experts say.

"I think it's pretty clear his opposition to the war enabled him to stand apart from her," Baker of Rutgers said. "It was a major rationale for his candidacy in the first place."

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