Hillary's Family Intervention: Is It Too Late?

Hillary Clinton's ritual end-of-day conference call with senior advisers on Dec. 11 was anything but a normal strategy session. Clinton's aides had just learned of the next day's New York Daily News story (headline: HONEY, I'LL FIX THE CAMPAIGN), about Bill Clinton yelling at his wife's team and the prospect of a campaign staff shake-up. "I want to be really clear about one thing," Clinton said, chuckling, according to a person on the call. "We're not having a shake-up. This is what people do to distract us. We're not going to allow ourselves to get distracted. No one is going anywhere."

That pledge may have calmed her aides, but it doesn't change the fact that Clinton's campaign is struggling at an alarmingly late moment before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Last Friday, her team released a cozy TV ad featuring Clinton's mother and daughter in a bid to humanize the candidate and recover in the polls after sustained attacks by Barack Obama and John Edwards. Campaign operatives also plan to launch their own offensive on Obama's credentials. But that's a tricky balancing act, and one high-level surrogate—Bill Shaheen, Clinton's campaign co-chair in New Hampshire—failed to pull it off last week when he suggested that Obama's teenage drug use would expose him to future Republican attacks. (Clinton condemned Shaheen's remarks, and he resigned.)

Managing the Bill factor is even trickier. According to aides who declined to be named speaking about the campaign's inner workings, the former president is a free agent within Hillary's organization, and he knows her—and political strategy—better than anyone on her staff. It was Bill, aides say, who crafted and delivered her new slogan of the week: that Hillary was "an agent of change." Bill's reach in the operation includes tweaking press releases, calling senior Hillary staffers and campaigning on his own in Iowa. Aides say there is no tension between him and her staff, even when their advice is displaced by his.

The larger question is whether her husband's advice will be enough to deliver the early states. Clinton now trails Obama in Iowa, according to NEWSWEEK's latest poll, and aides are also worried about New Hampshire and South Carolina, where her double-digit lead has evaporated. Clinton's once mighty cushion in CNN's national poll has also shrunk from 30 points in October to 10. Between advice from Bill and ads featuring Chelsea and Dorothy Rodham, Clinton's family intervention is coming when she needs it the most.