By RICK KLEIN with MIKE ELMORE
It took until a day after Super Tuesday, as it happened, for the tsunami to strike: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is now the underdog in the Democratic presidential fight — and that is very much not by design (Mark Penn’s spin notwithstanding).
Feb. 5 — the day that was once expected to seal the nomination for the Candidate Formerly Known as “Inevitable” — was at best a duel to a draw, at worst the beginning of an erosion of Clinton’s carefully constructed delegate lead.
Feb. 6 brought the stunning news that the Clinton campaign is essentially broke, running on a $5 million loan from the candidate herself, with senior staff foregoing paychecks and the candidate pleading with her opponent to accept five more debates (do we really need more?) over the next four weeks.
To recap some of what $100 million has purchased for Camp Clinton: the surging energy of Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign; an unfriendly next batch of contests (Obama-friendly caucuses, and primaries with high numbers of black voters) that could narrow or even erase the delegate gap; and the intimidating prospect of Obama’s virtually unlimited resources ($6.9 million and counting raised by the campaign just since polls closed Tuesday).
Clinton, D-N.Y., has tried on plenty of hats (and pantsuits), but tying her hair back as the underdog is a new role entirely for this Clinton. At least she’s got time to try something different: The campaign is now a very expensive (and very long) war of attrition, and her personal cash infusion (more could still come) signals to her supporters that she’ll swim through the rising Obama tide.
“With both candidates claiming the lead, Democrats dug in Wednesday for a prolonged nominating fight that will test Hillary Rodham Clinton’s establishment support against Barack Obama’s growing financial edge,” Mark Z. Barabak and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.
One Clinton bright spot: “From now on virtually all the major contests are primaries — not caucuses — and Clinton has done better in primary states.”
“With Super Tuesday leaving Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in a virtual deadlock, the fiercely fought Democratic presidential race has become a pitched battle for delegates — and neither candidate is likely to win it anytime soon,” The Boston Globe’s Scott Helman reports.
“Obama argued that despite feeling victorious, he was still the ‘underdog’ because of Clinton’s institutional advantages and broader name recognition.”
There’s plenty of spin here, but the short-term map does favor Obama, D-Ill. “Clinton advisers sounded especially grim on Wednesday about the upcoming contests, noting Mr. Obama’s advantage with black voters in Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia and with liberals and young voters in Washington State and Wisconsin,” Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.
“They were already looking ahead and budgeting for the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, when nearly 400 delegates will be at stake.”
How many frontrunners do you know who ask for more debates? This letter is going out Thursday, from Clinton campaign manager (pro bono) Patti Solis Doyle to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: “I was disappointed to see that Senator Obama rejected the idea of having more debates given the fact that he and Senators Clinton have had only a single one-on-one debate,” she writes. “I think we can do better and so does Hillary.”
Obama has built his own establishment, and while Clinton can fall back on her edge among superdelegates, watch for jumpers, switchers, and traitors if Obama starts racking up more victories.
“Given how competitive the race is, many superdelegates may remain neutral to see whether one of the two candidates gains a clear advantage,” Shailagh Murray and Matthew Mosk write in The Washington Post.
“That, Democratic strategists said, would require Clinton or Obama to go on a lengthy winning streak that would include victories in the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries. Obama is making a big play for Texas, with plans to open 10 offices there in the days ahead.”
Clinton has Chelsea and Bill, and Obama has some big names of his own calling superdelegates: Campaign manager has “divv[ied] up superdelegate calls with the Senator’s senior whips, including [Sen. Dick} Durbin, other members of the Illinois delegation, and Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and John Kerry (Mass.),” Erin P. Billings and Lauren W. Whittington write in Roll Call.
“All of Obama’s Congressional supporters were invited to join another conference call Wednesday, and the main focus again was the effort to pick up superdelegate support.”
Then there’s less subtle ways to reach superdelegates. Obama on Wednesday said superdelegates “would have to think long and hard about how they approach the nomination when the people they claim to represent have said, ‘Obama’s our guy.'”