As John Heilemann explains, that “kitchen sink” Hillary Clinton threw at Barack Obama turned out to be pretty effective. Despite polls showing Ohio residents believed by wide margins that she attacked him unfairly rather than the other way around, Hillary spanked Obama by double digits in Ohio and eked out a popular-vote win in Texas. But it wasn’t just her red phone ringing at 3 a.m., kvetching about back-channel NAFTA assurances, and pushing the media to interrogate Obama about Antoin Rezko.
Hillary also told 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft there is “no basis for saying” that Obama is a Muslim — “as far as I know.” She complained to Nightline’s Cynthia McFadden that it’s harder to run for president as a woman. Her campaign threatened to sue the Texas Democratic party over its delegate-selection process, then instructed its precinct captains at Texas caucuses: “DO NOT allow the supporter of another candidate to serve in leadership roles.” It paid black people to hold campaign signs in Texas, and at least one of its phone bankers in Ohio referred to Obama as Osama bin Laden. And then Hillary began comparing Obama’s bona fides to be commander-in-chief to John McCain — unfavorably. “I think you’ll be able to imagine many things Senator McCain will be able to say,” she said in her newfound tone of full-throated sarcasm. “He’s never been the president, but he will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.”
A lot of the mud stuck. Obama received drastically increased press attention — 69 percent of campaign stories last week focused on him — much of it newly critical. Late-breaking voters went for Clinton. And in Ohio, 20 percent of voters said the race of the candidates was important, and Hillary won among them, 57 percent to 43 percent. Seventeen percent said gender mattered, and Hillary also won those folks 57 percent to 43 percent. She not only benefited from being female and from being white, her support among voters who cared about race or gender made up her entire margin of victory.
The nasty tenor of the campaign’s latest round raises two questions. First, how savage is Hillary willing to get? The ongoing Rezko trial and the apparent success of her attacks on Obama’s readiness will give her opportunities to be even more rancid. But Clinton runs the risk of driving her own already-high negatives into suicidal territory. She’s also giving John McCain talking points for the general election, whomever the Democratic nominee turns out to be.
For the moment, the Clintons are ready to keep attacking. They believe they have finally changed the subject of the national political conversation away from Hillary’s organizational problems. And there really is a feeling inside the Clinton campaign that Obama is a paper tiger, that either he’ll fold or voters will get over their affection for him if Hillary just hangs tough. So, the tougher the better.
The second and more interesting question is how Obama will respond. Over the past week, instead of engaging Hillary too directly in hand-to-hand combat, he tried reaching out to gays, Latino pastors, and Republican voters — all reasonable gambits that fell short of ultimate success in Texas and Ohio. Can he figure out a way to enter the fray while maintaining his post-politics-of-personal-destruction appeal? And can he handle a press corps ready to challenge rather than roll over for him? Those questions will go a long way toward determining whether Obama can close the deal on the nomination before the end of the primary season. Because after last night, Hillary’s not going to let him leave the answers blank. —Peter Keating