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Hillary Clinton campaign talks about possible California defeat

February 5, 2008 |  1:24 pm

This could all be just so much manipulation, an attempt by Hillary Clinton's brain trust to reduce expectations for today's results to give her a little more oomph should she sweep the big states, including California.

But it could be they're genuinely nervous. Clinton is calling for more one-on-one televised debates with Barack Obama, a rare move for a front-runner and one that could signal the campaign thinks she's in trouble. Clinton has done well in earlier debates, while Obama has been inconsistent. Clinton has accepted four debates: one on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" this Sunday; one the next day on Fox in Washington, D.C.; and one more each in Texas and Ohio.

In a conference call a little while ago with reporters -- including our colleague Peter Nicholas -- Clinton strategists said Obama could win more delegates nationwide today than Clinton, a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a campaign that a few weeks ago was trying to paint Clinton as the inevitable nominee.

In fact, two months ago Clinton told supporters at a Sacramento fundraiser that ...

... it "is all going to be over by Feb. 5." At least she didn't guarantee it.

"We're confident we're going to win a diverse mix of states today, but the results are going to be close and inconclusive due to the proportional allocation of delegates under the Democratic Party rules," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications advisor. "We do expect to maintain the overall lead in delegates tomorrow when we wake up that we do today.''

Clinton's strategists said they could see the fight going through March and possibly onto the convention floor in Denver in August -- great sport for political junkies but a test of nerves for the candidates. And even if Obama gets more delegates today, Clinton's advisors said her lead among "super delegates'' -- party leaders and elected officials who are free to vote as they choose -- would still give her the overall lead. But that would just add to the perception that she's the mainstream choice, and fuel Obama's contention that he's the candidate of change.

So how did Clinton lose her dominant position in California, a state she once led by 16 poll points?

Wolfson: "Sen Obama has put considerable resources into the state. He's had large rallies, he's had great surrogates coming out to urge his supporters to vote.... Much to their credit the state is close. I don't think we're going to know who has won California until very late into the night. That's just the way politics is. The election wasn't 30 days ago. It's today. And as of today it's very close.''

Check back after as the evening proceeds to see how much of that was spin and how much was prediction.

-- Scott Martelle

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