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Hillary's Last Charge

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The battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the turning point of the American Civil War. On the third day, July 3, 1863, the Confederate Army's failed assault on the Union forces massed on Cemetery Ridge - Pickett's Charge - marked the end of the struggle. Many observers believe the April 22nd Pennsylvania Primary may prove to be the decisive battle in the struggle for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. Will this be Hillary Clinton's last charge?

On March 28th, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey defied Governor Ed Rendell's political machine and endorsed Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Since that time, tracking polls indicate Senator Clinton's lead over Senator Obama has shrunk. While it is too soon to tell whom the April 22nd winner will be, it seems unlikely that Clinton will achieve the massive, double-digit victory her campaign has predicted. If she doesn't it is unlikely she can overtake his lead in delegates and total popular vote.

Why has an experienced candidate, who was once thought to be the inevitable Democratic nominee, been pushed to the brink of defeat by a candidate who, two years ago, most Americans had not heard of?

In her latest New York Review article, veteran Washington political correspondent Elizabeth Drew dissected the failures of Hillary Clinton's campaign. They bear a remarkable resemblance to the reasons why the Confederate army ultimately failed. In both cases, the campaigns thought victory was inevitable and this myopia caused them to make strategic mistakes. Clinton and the leaders of the Confederacy believed their efforts would be of short duration. Drew noted the Clinton campaign assumed "the race would be over on February 5-Super Tuesday; and [therefore believed] that a number of small states that held caucuses could be skipped." Both Clinton and the Confederacy proved to have inadequate financial resources and, therefore, suffered in a war of attrition. And, both Clinton and the Confederacy had no backup strategy.

Senator Clinton began 2008 as the candidate with experience. After February 5th, this persona fractured and was replaced by a series of images: fighter Hillary, vulnerable Hillary, conciliatory Hillary, confrontational Hillary, and most recently, "Paulette Revere" Hillary. As the aura of inevitability dissipated, her campaign mottoes constantly changed: "Solutions for America," "Change You Can Believe In," "Renewing the Promise of America," "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead," and "In It To Win It." Meanwhile, her financial support dwindled. While Obama's strategy depended on a large number of donors making repeated contributions, Clinton's appealed on a small number making the maximum legal donation. In March, Obama out raised Clinton by 2 to 1 and reported 1,276,000 contributors.

As the contest dragged on, reporters began to question two key claims of the Clinton candidacy. The first was that she had more experience than Senator Obama. The Clinton campaign argued the press had not properly vetted Obama and there were "things in his past" that would cause problems in a general election. However, except for his association with pastor Jeremiah Wright, none have been revealed; Instead, as Elizabeth Drew noted, "His record in the three and a half years he has been [a Senator] suggests someone serious about the job." Reporters then scrutinized Clinton's record. This led to revelations she had overstated her role in negotiating the Northern Island peace accords and fabricated reports she flew into a Bosnia airport under hazardous circumstances. As a result her favorability ratings deteriorated.

The second of Hillary Clinton's claim to be questioned was that her partnership with former President Bill Clinton was an asset: when voters saw her infamous "who do you want to answer the White House phone at 3 a.m." ad, many assumed that in a Hillary Clinton presidency both Hillary and Bill would answer the call. This strategy assumed Democratic voters would continue to have positive feelings about the ex-President. However, beginning with his intemperate remarks in South Carolina, late in January, Bill Clinton's popularity waned.

As each of these difficulties has surfaced, it's raised the question of whether Clinton or Obama would do better in a general election against Republican candidate John McCain. When Hillary Clinton seemed the inevitable Democratic candidate, the conventional wisdom was that she would be stronger. Now many question that assumption. As 2008 progresses, it's become apparent Barack Obama has run a better presidential campaign: he has proven to be a more effective fundraiser; he has run a better get-out-the-vote operation; and he appears to have the better temperament, he has proven to be cooler under fire. After 15 months of relentless pressure, it's Obama who's emerged, looking presidential.

As Hillary Clinton prepares for her last charge up the political hills of Pennsylvania, she'd do well to remember the bitter lesson learned by the Confederate Army at the Battle of Gettysburg: You must control the high ground to win. Unfortunately for Senator Clinton, it's Barack Obama who has taken the high ground and it's too late for her to do anything about that.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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