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Ticket Replay: Turning points of the Obama-McCain-Clinton campaigns

January 4, 2009 |  5:10 pm

This weekend The Ticket is republishing some items from the recent 2007-08 political campaigns. This item by Don Frederick originally appeared in this space -- and in The Times' print edition -- on Nov. 9, 2008:

Regardless of what I did for a living, I would have been following this presidential campaign — obsessively.

It’s a deep-seated disorder, one that probably took root when the 1960 John Kennedy-Richard Nixon faceoff unfolded before my nDon Frederick Top of the Ticket blogger on latimes.comine-year-old eyes.

As this similarly memorable race played out, I was allowed a vantage point made to order for such a character defect: Blogger.

It’s an evolving craft, with few set-in-stone rules. There’s a seat-of-the-pants quality to it — snap judgments and gut reactions predominate; more thoughtful analysis and sweeping perspective are best sought elsewhere.

Still, the post-now/move-on nature of blogging enables one to tap into a campaign’s daily rhythm. And it hones a sense for the unexpected twist or turn that alters its flow.

In the lengthy journey that culminated in Barack Obama’s election, three such times stand out for me — three moments when, from my bloggers perch, the campaign’s established course got rocked (to greater or lesser degrees).

The first occurred just before Halloween a year ago, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was still the accepted frontrunner in the....

...battle for the Democratic nomination and the fight for the Republican nod was a free-for-all.

The latest in a stream of debates among the Democrats — notable mainly for the mastery Clinton had displayed over policy matters large and small — was nearing an end when the late Tim Russert of NBC asked her about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

To the shock of all concerned, she stumbled, offering an uncharacteristically muddled answer that became the evening’s headline. Nevermind that at a future debate, Obama would provide a comparably confused response; the bar at that point was lower for him than her.

Her bungled answer did not sink her candidacy; more serious problems, such as a poorly conceived strategy and a poorly managed staff — as well as Obama’s appeal and superior organization — would do that.

But her misstep was the first public chink in her armor, and from then on the aura of inevitability that had surrounded her diminished.

Once voting started in the primary season, Obama became the clear Democratic leader with a string of victories in February. Clinton, though, hung in. And then, in mid-March, what had been a shadow in Obama’s past was thrust into the spotlight.

Stories had been written and aired about the controversial minister at the church the Illinois senator had attended for years. But Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. became a full-scale furor when clips of vitriolic comments from the preacher’s past sermons went viral, courtesy of YouTube (a technology that had not existed when America last elected a president).

One-time rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton She lost

In the world of the blogs — and in the campaign in general — Wright became topic No. 1. Suddenly, Obama’s status as a “post-racial” candidate was cast in doubt. Instead, attention was focused on the nation’s long-standing racial divide.

Obama, of course, responded with a speech on race that defused the crisis for him and demonstrated a command under pressure that would become even more apparent as the campaign proceeded.

And proceed it did, evolving into a surprisingly close race by September. Despite a plethora of political winds blowing against John McCain, the Republican nominee actually inched ahead of Obama in some national polls.

Then came a weekend of behind-the-scenes chaos on Wall Street. That Monday — Sept. 15 — the public learned that several venerable financial institutions had either imploded or undergone restructuring. And in a campaign appearance in Florida that morning, McCain sounded precisely the wrong note. “The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” he told his crowd.

He added, in his very next sentence, that he recognized “these are very, very difficult” times. But within the blogosphere, the jolt from his initial comment — and the feeling that this was a major miscue — was palpable.

Obama and other Democrats had been handed a line with which they would lash McCain again and again. And try as he might, his efforts to detach himself from President Bush became that much harder.

--Don Frederick

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Photo credit: Associated Press (bottom).