Kondracke: Clinton Needs More Than New Personnel to Stop Obama Surge

Posted February 20, 2008 at 3:35pm

Wisconsin was the first big test of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) new campaign high command, though perhaps not a fair one. Regardless, it failed and has just two weeks to figure out how to stop Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) relentless surge toward the Democratic presidential nomination.

[IMGCAP(1)]Wisconsin wasn’t a fair test because Sen. Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, Maggie Williams, took over as campaign manager only a week before the Wisconsin primary.

Still, Williams & Co. were not able to come up with a strategy to slow Obama’s momentum. To the contrary, Obama’s 17-point victory in Wisconsin was even bigger than most polls forecast and represented more erosion of Clinton’s base among female and working-class white voters.

Now, if Clinton loses one more big test — in Ohio or Texas on March 4 or Pennsylvania on April 22 — Obama probably will be unstoppable.

Campaign insiders say Williams’ predecessor, Patti Solis Doyle, and her deputy, Mike Henry, also departed, were responsible for failing to prepare adequately for any events after Super Tuesday and that Williams team has infused a new sense of mission and direction.

Solis, they say, operated through a tight group known within as “The Five,” including herself, pollster/strategist Mark Penn, policy chief Neera Tanden, media planner Mandy Grunwald and communications director Howard Wolfson.

The remaining four are still in place, but Williams has brought in more outsiders, including former Bill Clinton operatives Craig Smith and Steve Ricchetti, to provide strategic advice, and has dedicated an entire floor of Clinton’s Arlington, Va., campaign headquarters to a delegate-search operation headed by top strategist Harold Ickes.

Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House, reportedly told campaign loyalists in a conference call last week that he does not like the term “superdelegates,” referring to 796 Members of Congress, governors and Democratic National Committee members who are ex officio convention delegates and can vote as they see fit.

A participant on the call said Ickes prefers the term “automatics,” because it gives the delegates a less exalted status than “superdelegates.”

Regardless of what they are called, the Clinton campaign is intensively working to win endorsements from them, figuring they are Clinton’s best hope for winning the Democratic nomination if — as aides hope — “pledged” delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses split about evenly between Clinton and Obama.

At the moment, RealClearPolitics.com gives Obama an edge of 159 among pledged delegates, 1,187 to 1,028, but gives Clinton an edge, 239-169, among “automatics,” reducing Obama’s overall lead to 89 delegates, 1,356 to 1,267.

It takes 2,025 delegates to win the nomination, not counting any awarded in Michigan and Florida, which held primaries in violation of party rules.

The Obama campaign insists that only “pledged” delegates have true status, having been chosen democratically, and wants to establish a principle that “automatics” will cast their ballots for the candidate with the most pledged delegates and/or the popular vote winner. Right now, that’s Obama, too, by a margin of 10.2 million to 9.3 million.

On a post-Wisconsin conference call with reporters Tuesday, Obama campaign director David Plouffe said Clinton would have to win upcoming large-state primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22 with 65 percent of the vote to catch Obama in pledged delegates.

In a separate call, Ickes and Wolfson said Plouffe’s math was faulty and, of course, challenged the notion that superdelegates couldn’t vote their consciences. Ickes also is determined to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, whose primaries Clinton won.

According to a participant in last week’s call, Ickes admitted that the idea of empowering “automatics” — otherwise known as “party bosses” — is a reversal for him from the days when he was “a child of the revolution” and an advisor to former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.

Ickes reportedly asked Clinton supporters to make “buck up” calls to pro-Clinton “automatics” — especially Members of the Congressional Black Caucus — whose states or districts were carried by Obama.

Ickes told the group that several such delegates are under extreme pressure — some of it accompanied by threats of political retaliation — to side with Obama.

In addition to setting up the Ickes operation, which has its own press secretary, Phil Singer, the Williams-led operation has a new liaison with Members of Congress, Linda Moore, a former Clinton White House aide and chief of staff for Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)

Williams has dispatched Robbie Mook, the organizer of Clinton’s Nevada caucus victory, to work Ohio, which is also a specialty of Ricchetti’s, and Nick Clemons, who oversaw New Hampshire, to handle Texas.

If Wisconsin is any indicator, however, Clinton will need more than able organizers in Ohio and Texas. Her attacks on Obama in Wisconsin — for refusing to debate her and for allegedly plagiarizing speech lines — proved to be unpersuasive.

Demographically, Wisconsin is relatively similar to Ohio — with the exception that Ohio has more African-American voters. And in Texas, according to GOP political expert Karl Rove, middle-class whites have largely defected to the Republican Party and Democratic delegate rules give more weight to African-American districts than to Hispanics.

Bottom line: The next two weeks are do or die for Clinton. She has been there before and has pulled it out — in New Hampshire and on Super Tuesday — but the crises never cease.