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5 March 2008

The fight is far from over

With Hillary Clinton's dramatic victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, Andrew Stephen reports on

By Andrew Stephen

It was all so tragic for Senator Barack Obama. Had last Tuesday’s primary elections been held just three days before, he would have continued his running streak of 11 electoral triumphs by adding at least three of the four states that went to the polls. With huge states like Texas (228 delegates) and Ohio (161) then under his belt, he would have been virtually unassailable as this year’s Democratic presidential nominee. But exit polls showed that hundreds of thousands of voters had switched their allegiances to Senator Hillary Clinton in the three days immediately before polling – and, while John McCain swept his way to become the indisputable Republican candidate, the Democratic campaign became more complicated than ever.

For Clinton, her dramatic comeback came just in time with her victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island. Even if Obama had romped to comfortable victories in Texas and Ohio, though, neither candidate would have been able to win the necessary 2,025 delegates to clinch the party’s nomination by the time of the final 2008 primary in Puerto Rico on 7 June. Her strategy, therefore, was to restore her legitimacy as an opponent to Obama in the eyes of the 796 “super-delegates,” who will probably end up choosing the Democratic presidential contender to be crowned at the party convention in the Pepsi Centre in Denver at the end of August.

I can reveal, too, that the Clinton campaign will now be furiously campaigning for primary elections in Michigan and Florida – first held on 15 and 29 January respectively and which Clinton won easily, but which were discounted because they were held too early under party rules – to be fought again. The Obama team had assumed, until now, that Clinton would try to flout party rules by bringing the delegates she had theoretically won in Michigan and Florida to Denver at the end of the summer to cast their votes for her, a strategy that would almost certainly have backfired.

But there are no obstacles to staging the primaries again – and the Republican governor of Florida, 51-year-old Charlie Crist, says he would like to “fix that problem” by holding the election again. Michigan, almost certainly, would then have to follow suit. Between them, the states would then send 313 properly elected delegates to Denver, and a total of 1,109 delegates would be thrown into the mix for the Obama and Clinton teams to battle over. The fight, therefore, is by no means over.

The overwhelming reason for the last-minute mass defections from Obama to Clinton was that the Clinton campaign team, after almost giving up in despair, had finally discovered a way to get under Obama’s skin and make his halo start to slip. Their tactics culminated last Monday in the worst day of the election campaign so far for Obama, when he held a bad-tempered press conference that ended abruptly when he walked out after just eight questions.

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Most damaging of all for his campaign, though, was the realisation that St Barack was not above telling fibs and using underhand campaign tactics; if you assiduously cultivate an image of unadulterated rectitude and honour, then the fall from grace is going to be that much greater. Instead of the soaring oratory from Obama to which television viewers had become accustomed, last Monday they saw instead a petulantly defensive candidate trying to explain that he had not lied over his North American Free Trade Agreement policy or his ties to Antoine “Tony” Rezko – a Syrian-born property developer in Chicago whose trial for fraud and attempted extortion had, propitiously, begun that very day.

Taking Obama on, the Clinton team had been finding, was almost impossible. Then they found passages of speeches which he had plagiarised from Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, clips of which soon found their way to YouTube. They decided to confront him, too, on mailings the Obama campaign were distributing on her healthcare and Nafta policies. “Shame on you, Barack Obama,” Clinton said animatedly. “It’s time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. That’s what I expect from you.”

Doubts over Senator Obama’s integrity were thus clearly planted. Imitating his rhetoric, Clinton also found, got under his skin. “I could just stand up here and say [that] the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect,” she rhapsodised to supporters in Rhode Island. In the week before last Tuesday’s elections, her campaign produced a television ad depicting her, as president, receiving news of a crisis at three am – subliminally suggesting that Obama would not be capable of dealing with grave national security matters.

That was immediately followed by a second ad, claiming that “as chair of a committee that oversees the force fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Obama was too busy to hold even ONE hearing on Afghanistan.” The Obama campaign, which spent twice as much as Clinton on television and radio ads in Ohio and Texas, immediately retaliated by putting out its own, almost identical three am ad – saying that “when that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the one, the only one, who had [the] judgement and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start?”

But the belligerence of the Clinton ad forced the US media – which will not look back on its initial worshipful coverage of Senator Obama as its finest era – to put St Barack under a scrutiny to which he had not been subjected before, even re-visiting some of his later more equivocal statements on Iraq. Instead of hearing cable news anchormen like 62-year-old Chris Matthews of MSNBC gushing that when he heard Obama “I felt this thrill going up my leg…this is the New Testament,” newsmen and women started investigating whether Obama was being truthful when he implied to Senator Clinton in a televised debate last January that his ties with Rezko were limited to five hours’ work as a lawyer working for a church.

Readers of the NS were aware last 10 January that Obama’s relationship with Rezko was much deeper, but I suspect that 99 per cent of the US electorate knew nothing of it until just before last Tuesday: that Rezko and Obama had been close friends for a quarter of a century, that Rezko was Obama’s biggest fundraiser, and that the two were involved in a complicated and still-unexplained property deal in which they bought adjoining mansions on the same day and which supposedly brought Obama $300,000 profit. “I’ve never done any favours for [Rezko],” Obama told the Chicago Tribune last December, apparently overlooking letters of support for Rezko’s $14m project he had written as an Illinois state senator in 1998.

In American politics, it is invariably the cover-up rather than the initial deed which brings down politicians. In what is already being called “Naftagate,” Obama silenced Clinton in a televised debate in Ohio by promising to “use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage” to re-negotiate Nafta. Canadian television then reported that, shortly afterwards, the Obama campaign had privately assured the Canadian government that Senator Obama’s statement in the debate was just “political positioning” and should not be taken seriously.

Dr Susan Rice, one of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers (and no relation to Condoleezza), soon emphatically denied the report: “There [has] been no such contact. There [have] been no discussions on Nafta.” Obama himself then told WKYC-TV in Ohio that “I think it’s important for viewers to understand that [the report] was not true” and that “it did not happen.” But on what turned out to be Black Monday for Obama, the Associated Press reported that it had obtained a 1,300-word memo repudiating Obama’s denials and confirming that Obama’s senior economic adviser had indeed met Canadian officials last 8 February, telling them that Obama’s anti-Nafta stance was “more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”

Senator Clinton, meanwhile, was courting young viewers as a guest on Saturday Night Live – which, in a stark departure from customary US media coverage, parodied the absurd obsequiousness with which television interviewers treated Obama while Clinton herself was being treated rudely. She then made a similar appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, revealing a usually well-hidden light-hearted side of her character while Obama was miserably issuing his denials. She was suddenly transformed into a winner, Obama a loser.

Not a peep, meanwhile, has been heard from Senator Clinton’s husband Bill – but he will now take behind-the-scene charge of her War Room, while former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle will perform the same task for Obama. Exit polls last Tuesday night, meanwhile, showed the now-predictable strengths, weaknesses and appeals of the two candidates.

What remains to be seen is whether this was just a bad week for Obama and a good one for Clinton. Most worrying for Obama’s supporters is that he wilted under the pressures of a routine, albeit hostile, press conference. If he is so fragile that he can be rattled by questioning from a handful of Chicago reporters (who have his measure by now) can he survive pressures in the White House? There is a growing acknowledgement that he has been accorded a uniquely easy ride by the media, and that is changing; Rezko’s trial will now proceed and his lawyers say they want to call Obama as a witness, a prospective nightmare for him.

The battle between Obama and Clinton, I suspect, will now intensify into who has the most personal and political stamina. Obama now has (by one authoritative count) 1,482 delegates compared with Clinton’s 1,390, but there is a real possibility that Clinton will overtake him in the popular vote. The exodus of the super-delegates towards Obama will now halt while the 796 senior party stalwarts take stock; Clinton has the persuasive argument that she has carried the big states like California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Massachusetts (despite Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing on the Camelot torch to Obama).

But Obama’s appeal can still be overwhelming: I entered the words “Obama” and “change” into the Yahoo! search engine last Wednesday morning, and got 224,000,000 hits. Enter the words “Hillary” and “president” and I came up with just 150,000,000. Do the same with John McCain,” though, and there are no fewer than 164,000,000 references. By 20 January next year, God willing, one of these three will become the 44th US president – but fasten your seatbelts for the ride in the meantime.