Heilemann: Why Hillary’s Last Stand Will Be North Carolina, Not Pennsylvania

Hillary Clinton
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Since the moment late on the night of March 4 that it became clear that Hillary Clinton had beaten Barack Obama in both the Ohio and Texas primaries, all eyes in the political world have been trained on Pennsylvania. Here you had a contest, set for April 22, with nothing else preceding it on the electoral calendar for six solid weeks. And here you had a battleground state essential to Democratic prospects in the fall, a state suffering economically in which the votes of the white working class were crucial. Pennsylvania would therefore be the next great test for Obama — and, of course, the latest in an ever-lengthening series of must-win venues for Clinton.

But suddenly, strangely, the Keystone State isn’t looking like all it was cracked up to be. Instead it seems that North Carolina is emerging as the new Pennsylvania.

Now, it’s certainly true that both campaigns are still expending considerable time and resources in Pennsylvania: Hillary hit Philly and Uniontown yesterday and was in Greensburg this morning, and her first TV ad in the state also hit the air today; and Obama plans to kick off a six-day bus tour of the state on Friday. And no doubt, the exit polls there will be scoured (and rightly so) for evidence regarding the effect of the Jeremiah Wright furor and Obama’s attempt to quell it with his big speech on race. Yet in the wake of Clinton’s triumphs in Texas and Ohio and the eruption of the Wright controversy, Clinton’s lead in polls in Pennsylvania has widened from single digits to as much as 26 points. Among operatives in both camps, the question is no longer whether Hillary will win the primary but how gaping her margin will be.

That Clinton’s people realize this has reduced the perceived value of that putative victory is evinced by a single fact: the decision to dispatch Ace Smith to North Carolina, which holds its primary on May 6. Smith is the San Francisco–based former opposition researcher who managed the campaigns of Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California attorney general Jerry Brown — along with Clinton’s successful primary bids in the Golden State and Texas. What the Smith assignment means, says John Edwards’s former chief strategist, Joe Trippi, is that “they are going to try to go for broke and take Obama down in North Carolina.”

Why is the Tarheel State ostensibly so important? Because, of the nine states (including Puerto Rico) still waiting to hold primaries, it’s the only one in which African-Americans make up north of 10 percent of the population — thus it’s the last opportunity for HRC to score a ringing, unequivocal upset against BHO. (Indeed, blacks are expected to make up as much as a third of the Democratic primary electorate in North Carolina.) Can she do it? Maybe so. Although polls showed Obama ahead by double digits there a month ago, his lead has dwindled to within the margin of error in the most recent major survey.

If Clinton does manage to win North Carolina — as well as Indiana the same day, a race where she is narrowly favored — on top of a big victory in Pennsylvania, she’ll get a bracing boost of momentum. In fact, if she pulls off that trifecta, there’s a chance, albeit a slim one, that she could run the table through the end of the primaries. (I say slim because Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota all still favor Obama.)

Such a feat would do little to change the math that makes it nearly impossible for Hillary to finish the primary season ahead of Obama in pledged delegates or the popular vote. But it would surely buttress the argument that she and her people are adamantly making to the remaining undecided superdelegates: that buyer’s remorse is setting in among Democrats as they learn more about her rival; that they are slowly waking up to the fact that she and not Obama would be the stronger runner against John McCain.

The irony, of course, is that a loss by Clinton in North Carolina wouldn’t really signify that these arguments aren’t true — since it’s white voters that she and her team are really talking about when they claim that doubts are growing about Obama. This by itself explains why they would have dearly preferred to double down on Pennsylvania rather than raising the stakes in the Tarheel State, where the hurdles confronting her are large. Clinton, however, is no longer in charge of her own destiny. The direness of her situation has even robbed her of the power to choose the setting of her own last stand. —John Heilemann

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For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.