Clinton, Obama Lower Expectations

As Hillary Clinton's top advisers tried to put a brave face on her thumping in Iowa five weeks ago, they buoyed themselves by looking forward to Super Duper Tuesday. "This thing will be over on Feb. 5," campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe assured reporters the day after Clinton's third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. California, New York, New Jersey and other big Feb. 5 states were "Clinton Country," the thinking went. Once the media finished swooning over Barack Obama and voters took a harder look, Hillary would start raking in the delegates. Of the 2,025 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination, some 1,700 are at stake on Feb. 5. But now that the fabled day has arrived, with Clinton and Obama all but tied in the polls, the Clinton camp is rolling out a new storyline. "The results are likely to be close and inconclusive," communications director Howard Wolfson said Monday. "Right now we are looking at a fight that will go on way beyond tomorrow."

For the flu-ridden and ill-tempered members of Clinton's road crew, who have been barreling around the country since early December, it's a ghastly scenario. Even Clinton's legendary stamina is wearing thin. Fighting a heavy cold, she grew teary Monday morning at an event at the Yale Child Study Center, where she once worked as a law student, as her old friend Penn Rhodeen described his first meeting with her, when she was clad in a sheepskin coat and bell-bottoms. "You looked wonderful and so 1972," he said.

"Well, I said I would not tear up," Clinton responded. "Already we are not on that path."

Hoarse and exhausted, she then hacked her way through events in Worcester and Boston, Mass., followed by evening appearances in New York with David Letterman and a syrupy Hallmark Channel town hall. No matter what the polls say, says her spokesman Jay Carson, "she will campaign as though she is 20 points behind." After voting early Tuesday morning, Clinton, her voice raspy, is scheduled to conduct more than 30 television and radio interviews with networks and with local stations around the country. Instead of planning a victory party for Tuesday night, the campaign has scheduled a nebulously named "election night celebration."

Having learned to dial back expectations after the disaster in Iowa and the thrill of the comeback in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign is wary of "Front Runner Stumbles" headlines; they'd rather predict a muddle. In California, where Clinton has seen a 25-point lead evaporate since last fall, the backpedaling is in especially high gear. "We're going to lose," one normally upbeat staffer e-mailed from San Francisco. "How's that for managing expectations?"

Meanwhile, Obama and his team are doing everything they can to wrestle the dial in the other direction. It's not often that campaigns don't crow about the good news: in this case the fact that Obama raked in a record-setting $32 million last month—compared with only $13.5 million for Hillary, according to McAuliffe. In a memo to reporters, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe tried to steer attention away from his candidate's surge in the polls, his huge crowds and the effects of the Kennedy family's blitzkrieg on Obama's behalf—preferring instead to predict defeat. "We fully expect Senator Clinton to earn more delegates on Feb. 5 and also to win more states," Plouffe wrote. "If we were to be within 100 delegates on that day and win a number of states, we will have met our threshold for success and will be best positioned to win the nomination in the coming months."  Campaigning in New Jersey Monday, Obama shrewdly compared himself to the upset Super Bowl champion New York Giants. "Sometimes the underdog pulls it out," he told the crowd. "You can't always believe the pundits and prognosticators."

Never mind that the know-it-alls having been saying for days now that Tuesday's contests are impossible to call. With both sides predicting a tossup, the Clinton team is starting to map out the next month of the battle, when the Democratic race heads into what one adviser calls "latte liberal territory." They expect Obama to have a strong showing in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which vote on Feb. 12, as well as Maine (Feb. 10 caucus). On Feb. 19, Washington, Wisconsin and Hawaii—where Obama was born and spent much of his childhood—hold their primaries. The Clinton team doesn't expect Hillary to have an advantage again until the contests scheduled for early March. The Democratic Party process, which awards delegates proportionately instead of winner-take-all, was designed, they say, to prolong the battle between well-matched candidates, a scenario the party hasn't seen since the allocation rules were devised after 1988—when Jesse Jackson won impressive popular vote totals but failed to accumulate many delegates because of the winner-take-all rules then in effect. "Many of us will be making our reservations for Texas and Ohio, and perhaps Pennsylvania beyond that," Wolfson said, referring to primaries scheduled for March and April.  Reporters and staffers listening to Wolfson on a speaker phone aboard a campaign bus hurtling toward Boston on Monday afternoon could only whimper at the thought.

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