It’s tempting to cast tonight’s Democratic debate—No. 21, for those counting—as an inevitable smackdown. Just look at what’s happened since the last debate: Jeremiah Wright, NAFTA, Austan Goolsbee, Samantha Power, the Bosnia sniper flap, and, most recently, Bitterclingelitistgate. But remember what happened last time we expected a bloodbath : The Los Angeles debate in January turned out to be remarkably civil. In fact, every one-on-one debate has been more tea party than sniper duel. Tonight could well be the same, with both candidates sticking to the issues and saving the attacks for the airwaves.
But Clinton can’t afford to sit back. She’s winning the battle (Pennsylvania) but losing the war (the nomination). Here are a few ways she might be able to outmaneuver Obama:
Don’t be bitter: It’s becoming clear that whatever the long-term effects of Obama’s “cling” thing, it’s not hurting him much in Pennsylvania or Indiana. (Plus, a recent national Gallup survey gave Obama his widest lead ever.) Nor have Clinton’s attempts to push the story gone over well. She therefore has a choice: Keep hammering Obama and risk looking desperate or let it go and risk everyone forgetting it ever happened. She’d be wise to choose the latter. Clinton has never won hearts and minds while on the attack—more often than not, her quips come off as cheap shots. (See her ” change you can Xerox ” remark.) She could luck out—Obama could say something to aggravate the elitism charge. But don’t count on it. He’ll be choosing his words with more care than usual. Better for Clinton to …
Focus on electability: To win the nomination, Clinton needs to convince superdelegates that Obama cannot beat McCain in the general election. That’s the only way they will override his pledged-delegate lead. Which is why, even if the moderators don’t mention electability, Clinton has to bring it up herself. That means hitting Obama on questions of character, like his iffy claim that he doesn’t take money from oil companies, or why he hasn’t released his tax returns from the late 1990s, or Rezko (again). It also means finding other ways to suggest he’s “out-of-touch” (shaky ground for Clinton, to be sure). She also needs to outgun him in the ineffable presidentiality department. That means not getting too riled .
Dominate on substance: Clinton is at her best when pummeling her opponent with lucid policy ideas, leaving him fumbling for a response. Tonight, that means nailing him on the economy and health care. The last two months have seen the maturation of the subprime-mortgage crisis, leading everyone from Alan Greenspan to Ben Bernanke to whisper the “R” word . Expect to hear a lot about stimulus packages, freezing home foreclosures, executive pay, and McCain’s one-eighty on “bailouts.” Clinton should tease out the differences in their economic plans—they’re both for government intervention, but Obama is slightly more cautious , while Clinton is aggressive. Health care is charted territory for Democratic debates, but Clinton has always shined. She’d be smart to steer the conversation health-ward.
Throw Bill under the bus: Or at the very least, do some serious distancing. Over the past weeks, Bill Clinton has managed to undermine his wife on the Colombia trade agreement (he’s for it), the China Olympics boycott (he opposes it), NAFTA (he signed it), and her Bosnia sniper flap (he resurrected it). Voters need to know that Bill will not have a voice in her administration. This is a hard case to make, given that her “experience” as first lady is a large part of her pitch. But for all his smarts, Bill has been a drag on Hillary. Saying “we disagree” isn’t enough. She needs to assure viewers that the next Clinton administration would not be a co-presidency.
Start to make amends: On the off-chance she doesn’t win the nomination, Clinton is going to have a hell of a time backpedaling from her recent attacks. Tonight, in the blistering heat of the pre-Pennsylvania race, is her chance to turn on the charm. Lavish him with compliments, praise his campaign, heck, mention the Dream Ticket idea again. Just make it clear that the race isn’t personal. In other words, leave room for a 2012 run.