Clintons fight for primary rebound

Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton, is joined by her daughter, Chelsea, and husband, former President Bill Clinton, during a New Years Eve event at the Capitol Square in Downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

With their presidential hopes and political legacy on the line, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband battled across New Hampshire on Sunday, fighting to become the comeback couple of the 2008 race.

Change was the word on their lips as they campaigned across this slushy state -- separately, to cover more ground -- taking thinly veiled shots at rival Barack Obama.

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose,” Hillary Clinton told a raucous rally at a high school gym in Nashua, where the overflow crowd matched the Illinois senator’s audience a day earlier.

Later, talking to reporters, she acknowledged some retooling in her campaign and drew a proverbial line in the snow. “If the campaign doesn’t evolve, it probably is dead,” she said. “And I don’t intend for it to be anything other than a winning campaign.”

In North Conway, in the picturesque White Mountains, former President Clinton challenged Obama’s oft-stated boast that he, alone among the major Democratic contenders, had opposed the Iraq war from the start. Bill Clinton cited a July 2004 interview in which Obama offered a somewhat more qualified statement of opposition.

“The point is, it’s inconsistent,” Clinton said.

Yet though they spoke of the future, the Clintons every step was shadowed by the past.

New Hampshire, after all, is the state where Bill Clinton nearly buckled in 1992 under allegations of womanizing and draft-dodging, persevering to finish second in a Lazarus-like performance (abetted by some artful spin) that set him on the road to the White House.

With that precedent, some called it premature to fashion the New York senator’s political tombstone, even after her dismal third-place finish Thursday in Iowa.

David Moore, a veteran New Hampshire pollster, noted that phenoms like Obama had stumbled in the past when their messages wore thin. There was Howard Dean and before him Gary Hart, a New Hampshire winner who fell apart after Walter F. Mondale challenged his promise of “new ideas” with the famous put-down, “Where’s the beef?”

Clinton is undeniably on the defensive. A new batch of polls showed Obama steadily climbing in New Hampshire, after his unexpectedly strong victory in Iowa.

And in an ominous sign for Clinton, a recent University of New Hampshire survey found 6 in 10 Democratic voters said it was more important to them to find a candidate who could bring about change than to elect one with experience. In Iowa, the change argument also won out over experience, greatly benefiting Obama, according to a survey of voters entering their polling places.

“She can point to her experience, but that is the ‘eat-your-vegetables’ kind of candidate. The one who is telling you, ‘You know it is good for you,’ ” said Andrew Smith, director of the university survey. “That’s versus Obama, the candidate who is going to give you three kinds of ice cream.”

Members of Clinton’s campaign circle, who operated with a confidence verging on cockiness over the last year, seemed perplexed by the abrupt turn the race has taken -- and grateful they had left Iowa, where voters expect the politicking to be more genteel.

Clinton’s strategy had been to cast herself as the inevitable Democratic nominee, clearing the field with a series of early wins. Iowa was always seen as troublesome, given its leftward leanings, and New Hampshire was supposed to be a firewall.

There are signs, however, that wall is crumbling. So lately, the Clinton camp has begun playing up the importance of other states, in case of another disappointment in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.

“We have the resources to go on,” campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe told reporters in a post-Iowa conference call, pointing to the avalanche of states voting Feb. 5. It is a message the Clinton team has been privately delivering to jittery supporters and donors in a series of buck-'em-up phone calls made over the last several days.

Inevitably, second-guessing and backbiting has begun within the campaign, some of it long-standing but finally emerging from behind closed doors.

Some Clinton strategists said privately they would liked to have seen the candidate make a greater effort to show the warmer, more personal side that was emphasized during a tour near the end of the Iowa contest.

Until that time, her campaign’s message was that Clinton was an experienced politician touting prescriptions -- on healthcare, the economy and social issues -- that Democrats tended to support. Only as her poll numbers flagged did she deploy supporters who insisted the former first lady was more than a Pez dispenser of policy.

In a similar vein, some believe the campaign erred in its pugnacious relations with reporters. Since touching down in New Hampshire early Friday, Clinton has been more accessible to voters and the media alike.

Gone are the wonkish, hourlong policy speeches, replaced by a tighter and peppier presentation that leaves plenty of time for audience participation.

On Sunday, Clinton held her second New Hampshire news conference in three days, bantering easily with a pack of reporters for nearly 20 minutes.

She stepped up her criticism of Obama, reprising an argument from Saturday night’s debate that, for all his stated opposition to the Iraq war, he has voted for "$300 billion worth of funding” to pay for the conflict.

“Sen. Obama has said that records matter,” she said. “And so, therefore, the records of all of us matter.”

Her husband, meantime, covered rural New Hampshire with three stops in the White Mountain region. The former president had planned only two appearances but asked for another, and the campaign added an evening visit to the Lucky Dog diner in Plymouth.

Running his usual hour late and nursing what he called a “typical New Hampshire head cold,” Clinton echoed his wife’s main theme: the notion that advocating change pales beside a record of making it happen.

“There’s a difference between talk and action,” he told the North Conway crowd. “It makes a big difference if you’ve actually changed people’s lives, if it’s the work of your life.”

The crowds that came out to see the former president were large and adoring, often numbering several hundred in communities of a few thousand.

But some questioned how much Clinton was helping his wife.

“One of the fundamental flaws in Hillary’s argument is the assumption that because Bill was a change agent in 1992, that she is now a change agent in 2008,” said Ben Austin, a Southern California-based political consultant who worked in the Clinton White House and now backs Obama.

“The Clintons have become part of the establishment after 15 years in power,” Austin continued, in an e-mail. “That’s why I and a bunch of fellow Clinton alum are supporting Obama now -- because he represents the same kind of fundamental change that Bill did in 1992 when I first got involved in politics.”

Howard Wolfson, one of Hillary Clinton’s top strategists, said the former president was an asset who would remain an integral part of his wife’s campaign.

“We’re going to continue to deploy him to talk about Sen. Clinton’s record,” Wolfson said. Besides, he added, “people know that Sen. Clinton is the candidate.”

Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.