Since Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her bid for the White House, she has steadily slipped from inevitable nominee to flawed and vulnerable front-runner amid campaign mishaps and voters’ Clinton fatigue – and her rivals anticipated that it all would accelerate in recent days.
But in yet another reflection that little in the presidential election is going the way of the prognosticators, Clinton is bolting out of October with the wind at her back.
The House Benghazi committee that threatened to menace her campaign turned into a bust. The presidential debate that promised to give her rivals a boost instead gave her an opportunity to outshine them. And most important, the headache for her campaign that was Joe Biden disappeared altogether with his surprise Rose Garden announcement that he won’t pursue the Democratic nomination.
Biden’s exit Wednesday followed that of former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a declared candidate. And by Friday morning, Lincoln Chafee, the former senator from and governor of Rhode Island, was pulling out of the race, nodding to Clinton’s “good week” as a reason.
“It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?” Clinton asked the crowd after taking the stage Friday morning at a Democratic National Committee women’s leadership event in Washington.
She acknowledged the 11-hour hearing ordeal the Benghazi panel had put her through the day before, a process designed to break her that instead invigorated the campaign. Clinton was so deft at waving off her antagonists on the committee – who accused her of a cover-up, a dereliction of duty, and duplicity that bordered on treason – that her campaign later said the hour after it ended was its most successful hour of fund-raising to date.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had not been particularly helpful to Clinton during her latest rough patch by siding with her rivals in a spat about the debate schedule, declared Clinton’s performance a tour de force.
For the record
An earlier version of this story referred to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
“She received a hero’s welcome,” Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said of the Democratic event the morning after the hearing. “Her knowledge, her poise, her stamina, her clarity was so appreciated by the American people, and certainly by the women gathered there.”
Later on Friday, to close the week on a high note, Clinton won the backing of a key union.
Still, all the outcomes in Clinton’s favor served merely to put her exactly where she started -- as the seemingly inevitable Democratic nominee.
Yet as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it, Clinton finally “got her mojo back.”
It was fitting that by Friday afternoon, Clinton was on stage before a vast crowd of supporters here, giving a hug to their state’s governor, Terry McAuliffe. He is a colorful partisan street fighter who seems to pop up in every chapter of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s political saga, and much of October was a familiar Clinton narrative: Boxed in by her political enemies, Clinton turned their zest for blood against them.
“You want to talk about a fighter?” McAuliffe said, in what was received as one of the biggest applause lines of the rally. “How about those 11 hours of testimony last night?”
Even Republicans acknowledged Clinton seemed to have hit a stride.
“She helped herself yesterday,” Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a presidential contender himself, told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. “They didn’t uncover anything new. They allowed her to get her talking points out over and over again. They were falling over each other looking ineffective. This is why people don’t like Congress.”
Clinton has always performed better in politics when her adversaries are gaining on her, forcing her to abandon some of the caution that consumes her when there is no clear danger to her front-runner status. The caution in itself becomes the threat.
Clinton supporters had been fretting about a repeat of her last presidential run, when her uninspired, overly scripted campaigning style cost her what had seemed an insurmountable lead. She finally came alive on the campaign trail after losing the Iowa caucus. But her resurgence came too late.
There is still a long way to go before the 2016 election, and Clinton will certainly have time to stumble before the nominating process wraps up. But as October ends, the only sizable group that seems to be betting she won’t be the nominee are die-hard supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Vermont liberal remains a formidable challenger, and the exit of other Democrats from the race is an opportunity for him to gain more support from the swelling ranks of Democrats who are dissatisfied with the establishment choice. Polling conducted before Biden decided not to enter the race, however, suggested that the bulk of his supporters were more inclined to vote for Clinton. While Webb and Chafee barely registered on the polls, they were running on platforms that more closely resembled Clinton’s than Sanders’.
And on Friday, Clinton secured one more key victory that will help her gain credibility with liberal Democrats wavering between her and Sanders. The 1.6-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union announced it was supporting her, another signal that despite enthusiasm in the rank and file for the Sanders platform, big labor is increasingly comfortable with Clinton.
“Members want the candidate who will be the most effective champion for working families, and who will be able to deliver a victory in this critically important election,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders.
Clinton operatives who not long ago scoffed at the notion the candidate was struggling now find themselves rolling out talking points designed to lower expectations. They note that the race is tight in early states. Some polls still have Sanders winning in New Hampshire, though others show Clinton has pulled even with or ahead of him there.
“It’s going to be really hard to get the Democratic nomination,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director. “I think she will do it. But the primary remains very competitive.”
Palmieri suggested all the attacks of late may have been a blessing.
“We had a lot of head winds this summer and showed that we can weather that and she can come out stronger,” she said. “You cannot knock this woman down. She can get attacked. You can knock her around a little bit, but you cannot do it. You cannot knock her down. It will not happen.”
Halper reported from Alexandria and Memoli from Washington.
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