Going negative proved positive in comeback

Times Staff Writer

In winning New Hampshire a few weeks ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton declared, “I found my own voice.” But it was a much different voice in the closing days before Tuesday’s voting that carried her to victory in Ohio and Texas -- and which now lets her make a strong case for extending the Democratic presidential race into the spring and possibly beyond.

Gone was the misty-eyed Clinton who scored points showing her human side. Gone was the gracious Clinton who, just two weeks ago, drew thunderous applause for expressing her pride in running against Barack Obama.

The new voice was angrier, sharper and far more negative toward Obama -- a voice that at one point bellowed at her rival, “Shame on you,” as she pushed back against what she said was an unfair attack.


She ran a television ad suggesting that the youthful Obama could not be trusted if a world crisis forced the president from bed in the middle of the night. She questioned his ethics by repeatedly raising questions about his relationship with a disgraced supporter who, by the luck of the draw for Clinton, is the target of a federal corruption trial that began Monday in Chicago, where Obama lives.

And, highlighting a meeting between a top Obama aide and the Canadian government, she painted him as a typical, two-faced politician who told the voters one thing about his intention to change the North American Free Trade Agreement but with a wink and a nod assured a foreign government he would not follow through.

In each case, Clinton put Obama on defense in areas that have long been his biggest strengths. And in each case, she seemed to finally figure out how to make her brand of “experience” compete with a mantra of “change” that had spurred Obama’s 11-contest winning streak going into Tuesday’s voting and peeled away key components of Clinton’s base.

Media exit polls showed that Clinton’s new voice brought some of her old supporters back to her side: The New York senator won women, white men and lower-income voters in Ohio, and she won women, whites and Latinos in Texas.

And on Tuesday night, as a testament to that core constituency, she dedicated her Ohio win to “all those who have been counted out but refused to be knocked out.”

Obama retains his delegate lead. But Obama’s campaign had argued that a strong showing Tuesday would pressure Clinton to step aside. His campaign manager had predicted that Clinton would fail and that Obama’s string of wins and his delegate advantage would be insurmountable.


Now, after Tuesday, such talk sounds far less convincing.

Instead, as the candidates eye more contests in the coming weeks, and with a crucial showdown set for April 22 in Pennsylvania, Clinton can point to her wins in big states such as Ohio, California, New Jersey and Arizona to make a case that she deserves the chance to fight for the nomination just as much as her rival.

And she can argue that Obama, who exacerbated Clinton’s attacks on him by seeming to shade the facts around his aide’s meeting with the Canadian government, is ill-equipped to take on Republican John McCain in the fall. She can plead her case to the public and, more important, to the nearly 800 party bigwigs known as superdelegates who may cast decisive votes at the party convention in August.

Obama will highlight what may be a slim delegate lead once voting ends in June.

“The key question is whether both campaigns have a story to tell on Wednesday morning,” said Democratic strategist Michael Feldman. “Can Sen. Clinton make a credible argument about her electability in a way that keeps the uncommitted superdelegates in place and allows the campaign to move forward?”

But as Clinton once again finds her voice, many Democrats worry that her new style and tone could damage the party’s chances in November.

Her wins Tuesday make it unlikely that Clinton would heed advice to alter what has become a winning strategy, but she may begin hearing from some party leaders that she should, at a minimum, tone down her attacks on Obama.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, once a rival for the nomination, warned in a television interview Sunday that the negativity between Clinton and Obama “could be campaign fodder for Republicans in the fall.”

He cited the Clinton ad in which a narrator warned of a crisis unfolding in “a dangerous world” at 3 a.m. and asked, “Who do you want answering the phone?”

Richardson said he was concerned that as the campaign continues to unfold in the seven weeks leading to the Pennsylvania primary, “that this just continues, this negativity, personal attacks. . . . Those are not helpful ads.”

In fact, exit polls suggested that the dangerous-world ad was helpful to Clinton. Though recent contests showed voters divided over who was most qualified to be commander in chief, the exit surveys in Texas and Ohio found that voters there overwhelmingly rated Clinton as most qualified to lead the armed forces -- a return to the impression many voters had held throughout 2007.

Before Clinton’s victories on Tuesday, some Democrats had hoped that an ad hoc “Supreme Court” of party elders such as former Vice President Al Gore, former President Carter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or even onetime rivals such as Richardson or former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina might step in to persuade Clinton to step aside for the sake of party unity.

But Al From, who as founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council has a long association with Clinton and her husband, the former president, said Tuesday that such a scenario was unlikely.

And he said a drawn-out, negative campaign could actually prove useful.

“I’d much rather have a Democratic candidate who’s had to figure out how to handle some fairly tough shots in the primary than one who gets knocked to the floor by the Republicans and doesn’t quite know how to respond,” From said.

But if Texas and Ohio are any indication, the negativity will take its toll. Exit polls published by CNN showed that barely more than four in 10 Democrats said they would be satisfied no matter which candidate won the nomination.

That kind of malaise is a stark contrast to the kind of universal enthusiasm seen from Democratic voters through early voting in January and much of last month. Even as Clinton got blown out in South Carolina, for example, more than three-quarters of voters said they would be satisfied if she were the nominee.

If the campaign stretches to June or even to a contested convention in August, reuniting the party could be difficult for either candidate.