Clinton’s Attack Plan

In the Democratic presidential race this is "Ickes Time"—as in Harold Ickes.

The legendarily abrasive lawyer and operative once bit the leg of a foe in a political clubhouse brawl and threatened to slam a congresswoman into the Broadway pavement. He knows more about the mechanics of Democratic presidential politics than any person alive. In 1980 he ran Sen. Ted Kennedy's liberal insurrection against President Jimmy Carter. The revolt endured—all the way up until the convention in New York. Ickes & Co. fought the Carter White House with cold-eyed fury for every last privilege and perk, including a prime-time speech by Kennedy that reduced Carter to the hapless role of colorless schlepper at his own renomination.

Even if Ickes loses—as he often does—he takes no prisoners.

So it was notable that he was the star of a conference call Wednesday in which Clan Clinton stepped up its attacks on Sen. Barack Obama and vowed to fight, as Bill Clinton used to say, until the last dog dies.

On Tuesday night sources close to Hillary Clinton's campaign told me that her organization was at odds with itself. Ickes (a specialist in delegates, money and other mechanics) was fighting with senior strategist Mark Penn (they've hated each other for years, the liberal Ickes despising Penn's centrist philosophy), who in turn was trading jabs with the media master Mandy Grunwald. Meanwhile, communications director Howard Wolfson, belying his tough-guy public persona, was cautioning that they all had to protect Hillary—and prevent her from appearing too nasty, the sources said.

Well, that was last night. By Wednesday morning it was clear that the campaign's leading strategists are turning toward Ohio and Texas with a united and combative front. Obama, they say, isn't prepared to be commander in chief. He is a dangerously unexamined speechmaker with no substantive accomplishments who is using right-wing tactics to go after Hillary's health-care plan. Oh, by the way, he is in cahoots with a sleazy, indicted slum lord (Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who is in jail pending a trial on fraud charges; Rezko has pleaded not guilty). The Clintonites will play an attack-and-wait game, hoping that Obama somehow collapses.

Ickes focuses less on the message than on the ground game. His take: since neither candidate will finish the primary/caucus season with enough pledged delegates (2,025) to claim the nomination, all bets are off—no matter what the delegate margin, no matter who wins the popular vote, no matter who wins the most states.

It will be a battle to the death for superdelegates, and Ickes and his operatives will argue that Obama is too risky, not only because of his record, or lack thereof, but because he lost too many big industrial states the Democrats need to win in the fall.

Both campaigns, for now, have sworn off trying to "flip" each other's pledged delegates. But that ceasefire, tenuous at best, won't last. This fight pits Ickes against the somewhat less volatile but no less tough David Plouffe, the Obama campaign's master of mechanics and a protégé of former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle, one of the best inside players the Democrats have had in the Senate. It's difficult to imagine Ickes or Plouffe ceding an inch, or swearing off any tactic that isn't statutorily illegal.

The amazing—and, for Clinton, unfortunate—thing is that her campaign was not in ankle-biter mode until very recently. If Obama is so weak and unprepared, where was the stream of opposition research to show that? If Obama's record of "present" votes in the Illinois legislative is such damning evidence of evasiveness and inexperience, where are the TV ads and documents explaining all of that to the public, not to mention an essentially antagonistic press corps? If Obama said he would attack Pakistan without permission (and he did say so), and if he said he would sit down without preconditions with various dictators (and he did), where are the TV ads reminding voters of that?

I know what some of the reasons are. Hillary has "high negatives." And it is always risky for a politician with such numbers to go on the attack. If you are a white candidate, attacking an African-American one in a Democratic primary requires surgical precision—and the Clinton campaign has been more sledge hammer than scalpel of late.

But there are other, less defensible explanations. The Clintons, for far too long, thought they were going to a coronation, not a campaign. Penn's view was that Hillary was an incumbent of sorts and needed to present herself as an institutional figure almost above it all. When the campaign sought to adjust its course, it toggled back and forth. First there was the nice, somewhat beleaguered but genuinely caring "crying" Hillary, which seemed to sell in New Hampshire. But then that approach failed miserably in Virginia and Maryland—after which Clinton switched into attack mode, while trying to keep the attacks on a relatively civilized plane. It didn't work in Wisconsin, but the Clintonistas think it worked better than the "nice" Hillary.

So bring on Ickes, and let the leg-biting begin.