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Hillary Clinton plays her "Ace" in North Carolina

March 18, 2008 |  1:20 am

Averell "Ace" Smith, long renowned among California political operatives, has been burnishing his reputation this year on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Now he's undertaking his biggest challenge yet in this campaign season: overseeing her political shop in North Carolina, where a primary win in early May by Clinton could spur a real momentum shift in the Democratic presidential race.

The turf already is so favorable for Clinton in the most immediate contest — Pennsylvania's April 22 primary — that, if anything, the expectations game may work against her. At this point, anything less than a solid win by her there would probably fail to give her a discernible boost. Indeed, unless she swamps Barack Obama in the Keystone State — say, by 15 to 20 percentage points — his camp will continue to stress the bottom line: a relatively unchanged delegate count.

But the Obama camp will be anxious to bounce back on May 6, when Indiana and North Carolina hold their primaries (with even more delegates at stake, combined, than in Pennsylvania). And North Carolina looms as especially important for Obama: With a large black population (about 22% of the state's total) and substantial pockets of well-educated citizens, a loss there would raise questions about whether his appeal was seriously eroding.

Enter Smith, recently dispatched by the Clinton team to try to engineer such a defeat for Obama. As we said, his record ...

so far is impressive.

He ran Clinton's primary campaign in California, where she won easily on Feb. 5, and then helped guide her to the victory she absolutely had to have: Texas, on March 4. Indeed, in reporting on his mission in the Lone Star State, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined its piece: "Clinton sends her 'stopper' to Texas."

The Obama campaign has countered with its own proven pro to run its operation in North Carolina, Craig Schirmer. He headed Obama's effort in Wisconsin and directed the get-out-the-vote program for him in South Carolina — states where the Illinois senator chalked up smashing triumphs.

Schirmer also is familiar with North Carolina's political landscape; in 2002, he managed Democrat Erskine Bowles' failed U.S. Senate bid there. Bowles (a White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton) lost that race to Republican Elizabeth Dole for the seat that longtime GOP Sen. Jesse Helms gave up.

— Don Frederick

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