Clinton’s Closing Argument

Watching Hillary make her final pitch to Pennsylvania voters.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton in Scranton

Pittsburgh—Hillary Clinton wants voters to think Barack Obama has lost his cool. First, she argued that Obama’s lackluster performance in the last debate meant he couldn’t handle pressure. Then, she and her husband, Bill, suggested he was a whiner because Obama pointed out that the first 40 minutes of the debate had not focused on policy issues. Now, the day before the crucial Pennsylvania primary, Clinton released a new ad that asks which candidate can “stand the heat” of the presidency. The spot uses a montage of threatening images—from Osama Bin Laden to the Pearl Harbor bombing—to represent the threats America faces. The ad was an echo of Clinton’s earlier 3 a.m. phone call ad. This time, the narrator asks: “Who do you think has what it takes?”

The Pennsylvania primary is crucial to Clinton’s slim chance of survival; still, this ad may be as much about the next contests as about this one. The Clinton campaign seems confident about the outcome Tuesday. Usually campaign aides downplay their candidate’s chances so that a win seems all that much more wonderful. But this time, the candidate and her aides are letting on that they’re confident, which means they think they’re not just going to win, but win by a margin large enough so that they won’t have to spend Wednesday insisting on its magnitude.

On the stump Monday, Clinton looked relaxed. She spent her last day before the biggest remaining primary hop-scotching by plane across the state giving abbreviated versions of her stump speeches and telling audiences to go to her Web site for more.

The day started at the  Scranton Cultural Center, a neo-Gothic former Masonic Temple, where she told of the values of family, faith, and hard work she had learned during long family holidays spent by Lake Winola. She was regularly interrupted by chants of “Madame president!” and “One day to victory!” When a woman holding a “Hillary We Have Your Back” sign yelled out, Clinton responded, “I appreciate you having my back, and as your president I’ll have your back.” The crowd of 400 or so went wild.

Throughout the day, Clinton made only oblique references to her opponent, never mentioning him by name.  “Some people say ‘yes, we can,’ but that doesn’t mean we will,” she said referring to Obama’s signature line. “I’m saying yes we will.” Candidates often spend the day before the vote sounding a positive note. Clinton had an extra incentive to stay sunny since her campaign aides were working to paint Obama’s recent negativity as a weakness. (Obama didn’t attack Monday, either; both candidates are still running television ads attacking each other.)

With a win in Pennsylvania likely, Clinton aides are preparing to frame the victory as a ratification of her “Who do you think has what it takes?” message (whether voters actually saw the last ad or not). It’s the claim Clinton aides made after Hillary won the popular vote in Ohio and Texas. They argued those outcomes validated their ad showing Clinton was prepared to handle a late-night emergency phone call. Now, they’re likely to add that Obama’s rough patch in the last week of the Pennsylvania campaign means the crisis-testing scenario is not so hypothetical: Pennsylvania voters saw how Obama reacted to his poor debate performance and the pressure of the campaign, and they determined that he couldn’t take the heat.

The most recent proof of Obama’s panic, say Clinton aides, is his recent aggressive turn. Beyond just claiming that Obama is a hypocrite for attacking when he claims to occupy the high road, Clinton campaign aides are also trying to argue that his sharp new tone suggests a lack of even temperament. Faced with some stumbles and bad poll numbers, he has panicked and squandered his most valuable asset—his appealing call for a new high-minded kind of politics.

No one will listen to Clinton make this case unless she wins big in Pennsylvania. What’s the magic margin? That number will be determined by a complicated and unknowable formula composed of press reaction, superdelegate calculations, and the constancy of Clinton’s own supporters. Clinton may win by the numbers but not by enough to keep superdelegates from continuing to move to Obama or to keep one of her key supporters from saying she should pack it in. She may win, but Obama may show that he’s made in-roads with blue-collar voters, the linchpin voting bloc with which he’s had trouble. Obama’s bad two weeks puts more pressure on Clinton, in a way, to really rack up the vote totals.

On the other hand, Obama has vastly outspent Clinton in the state and on the airwaves. If he can’t put her away after spending all that money or woo blue-collar voters or women after targeting them, it might suggest these are fundamental liabilities for him, as the Clinton team has been reiterating for all these weeks. Every other state so far has failed to deal the definitive blow that would end this race. Why should Pennsylvania be any different?