Day of Reckoning for Clinton

The day of reckoning for Hillary Clinton is almost here. The voters in Ohio will either deal a final blow to her campaign or provide a much needed victory that at best will give her a reprieve in the long march to the nomination. A visitor from another country recently paid a call on the Clinton campaign headquarters in Ballston, Va., a place just over the bridge from Washington but light years away. He imagined he would be present at a moment of great triumph. Instead he found a campaign on the verge of imploding. Phone bank tables were unmanned. Bins full of mail sent over from the Senate sat unattended. A lot of young women, fanatical Hillary fans all, rushed about, seemingly unclear about what they were supposed to be doing. Other aides sat in front of computer screens, gloomily reading coverage of the campaign. Howard Wolfson and Phil Singer, the campaign's communications team, weren't speaking with anybody else, just doing their own thing, whatever that might have been. In short, it was not a happy family.

No amount of spin can overcome Hillary's disappointing performance Tuesday night in Cleveland. MSNBC called it a draw, but hardly anybody else did. Hillary didn't land a single blow. Her insistence on sticking with health-care reform as an issue for the first 16 minutes of the debate only reminded people how unbending she can be when convinced of the rectitude of her position. The debate was perhaps her last chance to turn the tide after 11 straight losses. As aides sat looking at polls coming in with the gaps widening, a new reality took hold. They've given up winning in Texas and they fear they may not win in Ohio.

Clinton once led Obama in all the national polls; now she's behind him by a growing margin—as much as 13 or 18 percent in some soundings. In Texas, which votes on March 4, Obama is now ahead in most polls. For the first time he has also surged ahead of her in an Ohio poll—one taken before the debate. Hillary leads in three other polls, but by a margin of 4 percent at best. This is a state where she has the backing of the governor and once led by a double-digit margin. Campaign aides are dejected and demoralized, and they're turning up for work late. It's as if they've given up. Talk of a dream ticket—the idea that a deal would be struck to combine his youth and her experience—was once an exciting prospect. Now the likelihood of that happening seems to fade by the day.

There was pandemonium this week when an image of Barack Obama in African garb appeared on the Drudge Report, sourced to the Clinton campaign. A day of witch hunts apparently yielded nothing, and Obama took Hillary's word that as far as she knew her campaign was not behind it. Donning unusual cultural costumes is a diplomatic gesture, not a career-ender (like when Michael Dukakis wore a helmet and rode around in a tank to prove his national-security bona fides). The furor died down pretty quickly—for now—but it was one more element in a budding storyline, nurtured by conservatives, that is calculated to paint Obama as somehow "other," not a red-blooded American, not one of us.

The much vaunted Clinton campaign operation, billed as the biggest, baddest game in town, had no post-Super Tuesday strategy because its leaders apparently didn't think one was needed. Whether that's due to arrogance or ignorance, it's the campaign equivalent of what President Bush did in invading Iraq without a post-Saddam plan. The primaries are in a very true sense a practice run for the White House, and if you emerge with high marks, as Obama has, it's a pretty clear statement of the kind of government you would run. Obama has shown a steadiness in demeanor and message. Clinton has blown through $120 million dollars, and her persona is more confused than ever. A USA Today cartoon captures the shifting moods with a political weather map and a "Five-day Hillary Forecast: Monday…Friendly; Tuesday…On the attack; Wednesday…Complimentary; Thursday…Hostile; Friday…Conciliatory."

Clinton thinks she is judged by a double standard, or by a standard that can't be met. As the first woman to seriously contend for the presidency, she's required to be two things at the same time: the tough commander in chief and a guardian of home and family values. The two don't easily go together, and there is no obvious precedent. When it comes to toughness, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher comes to mind. She famously warned former President Bush not to go "wobbly" before the first Persian Gulf War. It was said of her, not entirely tongue in cheek, that she was the only man in the cabinet. But Thatcher wasn't married to a former prime minister.

Clinton wouldn't have brought her husband into the campaign so publicly if she didn't need him. It's like calling in the National Guard after the Panzer Division fails, quips a friend of Bill and Hillary. It's unclear how many ground troops would be needed to save Hillary's campaign now.