NEW YORK – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a new offensive against Sen. Barack Obama on Wednesday, asserting flatly that her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination is not prepared to be commander in chief.
“It is time to get real – to get real about how we actually win this election, and get real about the challenges facing America,” Clinton told a cheering crowd at Hunter College in Manhattan.
Resounding Obama victories on Tuesday in Wisconsin and Hawaii pushed the Illinois senator further ahead in the delegate race and have turned the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4 into do-or-die battles for Clinton. After 10 straight defeats, she trails Obama in delegates 1,336 to 1,251, according to an Associated Press tally, and faces a dwindling number of opportunities to slow her rival’s pursuit of the 2,025 delegates needed to claim the nomination.
Clinton’s 17-point loss in Wisconsin was especially crushing, a sign that her criticisms of Obama – which were at their most intense during the Badger State showdown – accomplished little.
But instead of shifting course, Clinton redoubled her attempt to undermine his change-oriented message.
“One of us is ready to be commander in chief,” she told the crowd in New York. “Let’s get real. Let’s get real about this election, let’s get real about our future, let’s get real about what it is we can do together.” Obama had enjoyed a “good couple of weeks,” Clinton said, but his victories had come in states where he was expected to win. When voters in Ohio and Texas have the opportunity to take his measure, Clinton predicted, Obama’s run of success will end.
Obama waved off Clinton’s latest broadside, declaring before a crowd of 17,000 gathered in Dallas on Wednesday afternoon, “Today, Senator Clinton told us there is a choice in this race, and I couldn’t agree with her more. But contrary to what she was saying, it’s not a choice between speeches and solutions. It’s a choice between the politics of divisions and distractions that did not work in South Carolina, that did not work in Wisconsin and that will not work in Texas.”
In a Wednesday conference call with reporters, senior Clinton advisers vowed to press Obama on his readiness for the White House, arguing that the only reason that message had not worked so far is because Obama had been able to outspend Clinton in the recent string of contests. Now, according to chief strategist Mark Penn, Clinton will draw distinctions with Obama more sharply.
“She is the only person in this race who is both ready to be commander in chief and would end the Iraq war and start to bring home troops in 60 days, compared to both Senator Obama and Senator McCain,” Penn said. “She is the only one with a real plan for managing the economy, reining in the special interests and rebuilding the middle class.
“This is a very stark choice, and I think it’s going to be reflected in the choice we have over the next few weeks: Who is better able to lead the country in the event of a crisis and beat the Republican nominee?”
Exit polls in Wisconsin also suggested that Clinton’s economic message – a populist-tinged pledge to restore the policies of the 1990s boom – may be falling flat. Obama held a big advantage over Clinton among Wisconsin voters who rated the economy as their top concern. He edged her out among those naming health care, her signature issue, as the country’s single biggest problem. And eight out of 10 Democratic voters viewed trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law by President Clinton, as job killers. Obama hammered Clinton on NAFTA in Wisconsin, reminding voters in rallies and campaign materials that she once praised the agreement.
Ceding ground on the economy could be disastrous for Clinton in working-class Ohio, which, along with Texas, her advisers concede she must win by commanding margins March 4 to remain competitive. The latest Associated Press tally showed Obama capturing most of the delegates in Wisconsin and Hawaii on Tuesday, winning at least 55 delegates in the two states, with six still to be awarded. Clinton won at least 33, the AP found.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Wednesday that for Clinton to catch up, she would have to win Ohio and Texas by margins of 30 points, and follow that sweep with a 40-point rout in Pennsylvania on April 22. “This is a wide, wide lead right now,” Plouffe said. “The Clinton campaign keeps saying the race is essentially tied. That’s just lunacy.”
Even former President Clinton, pressing voters to turn out for his wife’s campaign, acknowledged the stakes March 4. “If she wins Texas and Ohio I think she will be the nominee,” he told supporters in Beaumont, Texas, according to ABC News. “If you don’t deliver for her, I don’t think she can be. It’s all on you.”
Her dismissive tone at Hunter College about Obama’s winning streak reflected a mounting despair inside the Clinton campaign about whether there is anything, at this late date, that can be done to halt his rise.