Hillary Clinton made news in the Democrats' debate in Philadelphia, declaring "Yes, yes, yes" when pressed on whether Barack Obama could win in November. It's not a message her advisers convey in private. But it was the right move, even if she doesn't really mean it. In a debate focused on a series of gotcha questions served up by the moderators, Obama spoke haltingly much of the time, choosing his words with extraordinary care because he knew they would be pounced upon.
He was on the defensive, never a good place to be. But Clinton needed to do more than just keep him rocked back on his heels; she needed a knockout punch. He avoided inflaming any of the miniscandals dogging him—which counts as a something of a triumph at this stage of the race. Clinton argued that she's the better candidate against John McCain because she's been thoroughly vetted while there are too many unanswered questions about Obama, including his association with the founder of the radical 1960s group the Weather Underground. Obama countered that Hillary's husband had pardoned two members of the group. "You couldn't pass your own vetting test," he chided.
Obama pointed out that he was eight years old when William Ayers, a college professor in Chicago and an Obama supporter, was involved in the Weather Underground. Visibly exasperated by the tone of the debate, Obama said the emphasis on gaffes together with innuendoes drawn from guilt by association were distractions from the real issues and a relic of the old style of divisive politics that the voters want to end. That's the core of Obama's message, and judging by the polls he's right. Episodes that have captivated the press have had little impact on the underlying dynamic of the race. "If there's a huge backlash among white working-class voters, it's not in any numbers I've seen," says William Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Clinton can't stop the negative thrusts at Obama altogether, but she has to figure out how to keep the stories going while minimizing the damage to herself. That may be an impossible task. An ABC-Washington Post poll this week found that Clinton's negatives exceeded 50 percent, with voters seeing her as untrustworthy. "Voters make assessments of these charges, and it may very well be that she has reached the point of diminishing returns," says Galston, a Clinton supporter. "If she's seen to be an agent of keeping it going, it may nick him, but it will cut her."
Obama gave Clinton a big opening when he told an audience at a San Francisco fund-raiser that rural voters in Pennsylvania are "bitter" because their jobs are gone and politicians haven't delivered for them, which is why they "cling" to religion and guns. The remark gave Clinton the opportunity to portray Obama as another in a long line of effete Democrats who can't relate to working people. His comments dominated the news cycles for days—in much the same way that the first revelations about Rev. Jeremiah Wright spawned seemingly endless rounds of coverage. The "bitter" answer, captured on audiotape, came in response to a question about whether Obama could win white rural voters because he is black. He basically said these voters have other grievances more salient than race, which is why they don't vote their economic interests and are vulnerable to wedge issues having to do with God, gays and guns. Clinton surely knows what Obama was trying to say, but seeing her path to the nomination narrowing, she manipulated his words for political gain. Fair enough. She hurts him, but she hurts herself more. Pollster Doug Schoen, who has advised her in the past but is not associated with the campaign, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post urging her to switch permanently to attack mode—because that's the only way she can win. She's already tarred with running a negative campaign, so she has nothing to lose, he argued.
Schoen made the same point in a panel discussion in Washington last week sponsored by the Week, which collects and distills must-read journalism. He was practically shouted down when he insisted Hillary hadn't run any negative ads—since she never actually named Obama in her infamous "3 a.m." ad. Karl Rove, sitting on the same panel, said Clinton had run a poor campaign and should have responded sooner and more forcefully that Wright "wouldn't be my pastor." Rove chortled over how vulnerable he thinks Obama will be once the Republicans get hold of him. He said that the speech on race that the media slobbered over was the most cynical exercise he's ever seen. He carries a copy of it in his briefcase just to keep him on his game.
Unless Hillary can surprise us once again, repeating the triumph she had in Ohio when Pennsylvanians go to the polls, Rove is likely to have Obama to kick around. The Philadelphia debate didn't do anything to help either candidate, and quite possibly hurt them both, but we are slowly evolving toward a result that seems increasingly inevitable: Obama as a Democratic nominee whose vulnerabilities boost chances of a Republican victory in the fall.