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early and often

Heilemann: Clintons Had South Carolina Coming

“A good, old-fashioned butt-kicking” was the phrase that Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, used to describe what went down on Saturday in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. And that’s exactly what it was. I’m not talking here just about the overall margin — 55-27 — by which Obama whomped Hillary Clinton. I mean the composition of his victory (the details of which you can find here.)

Among the most noteworthy stats to be found in the South Carolina exit polls is that the collapse of Obama’s support among white voters suggested by some pre-primary polls did not occur. As Axelrod noted, the unofficial over-under number on the eve of the vote was 10 percent of this category — but Obama actually ended up with 24 percent. More stunning, he essentially tied Clinton among Caucasian men and captured more than half of the white voters under 30. Finally, the hopemonger reached beyond his customary well-off/well-schooled constituency and carried at least a plurality of voters at every economic and education level – and this is crucial to his prospects on Tsunami Tuesday, February 5.

In the aftermath, Obama delivered a victory speech that may be the best address I have ever seen him give — which is saying something. Its essential virtue, at least in my eyes, was that it went beyond inspiration and uplift and offered some sharp contrasts, hammering Clinton (without ever mentioning her name) in terms that framed the contest in the way that he needs it to be seen for him to have a shot at prevailing. Earlier this week, a pal of mine who’s a longtime Democratic strategist and served in Bill Clinton’s White House, e-mailed me the following:


Not sure if I have the right words here, but this is the concept [of what Obama should argue]: Senator Clinton keeps saying that only she knows how to run against the Republican attack machine. Her primary campaign symbolizes her approach: she is running an attack-oriented primary campaign, and she promises to run a general election campaign the same way, and then she thinks she will get to Washington and get something done. If she lives by the sword she will have a presidency that dies by the same sword. Do we really want to replace a Republican president who behaves like Karl Rove with a Democratic president who behaves like Karl Rove? If you want to continue living in a polarized America, if you want a politics that is about attacks instead of progress, vote for her. I [Barack] am offering something fundamentally different. If you want a candidate who will run a campaign — and a president who will run a White House — that brings people together, vote for me.

And this is effectively what Obama said, in words more eloquent and stirring. Any number of conservatives read the speech the same way; over at The Corner, for example, Rich Lowry wrote, “It's the best liberal case you'll ever hear for moving on from the Clintons.” And he’s exactly right.

The South Carolina primary was clarifying on a number of levels, but especially regarding the Clinton campaign’s willingness to play the race card — attempting to marginalize Obama as the black candidate — in the most egregious ways.

How egregious? On the day of the primary, Bill Clinton was asked about the difficulty for Obama of having to contend with two Clintons rather than just one. The former president’s response: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88. And he ran a good campaign. Senator Obama’s run a good campaign here, he’s run a good campaign everywhere.”

So there you have it — Bill Clinton saying, Yo, white America, listen up: Obama = Jackson.

Among many fans of the Y-chromosome Clinton, the idea that he would engage in such tactics seems incomprehensible. I’d only remind them that, before WJC’s famous “mend-it-don’t-end-it” speech on affirmative action in 1995, Clinton was no hero in the black community. He had trafficked in divisive racial politics more than once before, notably with his return to Arkansas during the New Hampshire primary in 1992 to oversee the execution of a mentally retarded black inmate, Ricky Ray Rector – and of course with the Sister Souljah maneuver.

Hillary’s old friend and current tormentor Dick Morris recently suggested the Clintons’ strategy was to win by losing in South Carolina. That they would use an Obama victory fueled mainly by black voters to “trigger the white backlash Sen. Clinton needs to win.” Certainly Hillary didn't seem too bothered by the flight of black voters to Obama when I interviewed her recently my forthcoming cover piece in this week's magazine. "A lot of [blacks] who might not vote for me in a primary will not have the conflict going forward in the general election that they have today. And I guess my strong message to African-American voters is one I think they know and they know I know, which is that it's okay."

Exactly how South Carolina will be perceived by white and (critically) Hispanic voters in the February 5 states remains an open question. Obama did, after all, take more than 80 percent of both black men and women; and he did, after all, come in third among white voters. And none of the states on Tsunami Tuesday will benefit from another electorate where African-Americans make up half the overall turnout, as they did in South Carolina.

For now, however, let’s take heart in what happened in South Carolina — just as we did in what took place in New Hampshire. In the latter state, voters perceived an attempt to prematurely coronate Obama and hit the media and the pollsters squarely upside their (our) fat heads. In South Carolina, they saw the Clintons, and especially Bill, trying to use race to sink Obama’s candidacy, and their response was to smack the Big Dog and his wife across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Will they get the message? I wouldn’t count on it. But, for their own sakes and for ours, I pray they do. —John Heilemann

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