Clinton Takes Obama Head On

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally at the Austintown-Fitch High School, March 2, 2008 in Austintown, Ohio.

It would be hard to overstate the stakes for Hillary Clinton in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday. Prominent Democrats are publicly calling for her to get out of the race if she does not do well, and her own husband has said she must win both to survive (though the campaign has of late been saying that Clinton has to win just one of the two big states). But if she can pull it out, she gets what her own advisers describe as a chance to "reboot" her foundering campaign — and six weeks before the next big contest in Pennsylvania, in which she can try to regain the momentum that once made her look unstoppable for the Democratic nomination.

So it is understandable that these final hours have not been a time for nuance, especially with polls suggesting a race too close to call in both states. Clinton rolled across economically struggling Ohio this past weekend in a bus emblazoned "Solutions for America," giving feisty speeches to crowds that — while they were only a fraction of the size that Barack Obama was drawing — seemed as intense and determined as any she has drawn to date in this campaign. In depressed Youngstown, she appeared with hometown favorite Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik, the middleweight boxing champion, and declared: "I'm a fighter, a doer and a champion."

Clinton loaded her speeches with a laundry list of policy promises: to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement; provide universal health coverage; restore manufacturing, with an emphasis on new jobs providing clean energy; get rid of "every single tax break" that rewards companies for sending jobs overseas; abolish the No Child Left Behind program; forgive college debt for students who agree to do public service; reduce gas prices, in part by taking a tougher line with the Saudis; take better care of veterans; begin pulling troops out of Iraq. She boasted of the endorsements she has received from retired admirals and generals, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (both of whom, as it happens, served under her husband). "I've been very specific in this election," she said in a serious understatement.

And she's been equally specific in her blistering critiques of Obama of late. On Monday, after the Associated Press reported that Obama's senior economic adviser had indeed privately told Canadian consular officials not to take the candidate's anti-NAFTA rhetoric all that seriously, Clinton lit into both Obama and the media. She said the alleged communication, which the senior adviser claimed had been misinterpreted, shows the Obama campaign has "done the old wink-wink. Don't pay any attention. This is just political rhetoric." She also suggested the media would be treating this more seriously if she had done it. "With this story, substitute my name for Senator Obama's and just ask yourself."

At times, it seemed Clinton was all but accusing Obama of being an empty suit. She warned voters not to be swayed by speeches that left them thinking, "That was beautiful, but what did it mean?" Defending her provocative television ad suggesting he was not up to the challenge of answering the White House phone at 3 a.m. in a crisis, she told reporters at a news conference Monday in Toledo: "I have a lifetime of experience I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain [the presumptive Republican nominee] has a lifetime of experience he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he made in 2002" — a reference to the address in which Obama, before being elected to the Senate, had publicly opposed the Iraq invasion that she and McCain had voted to authorize.

Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn went so far Monday as to claim that her so-called "red phone" ad, and the issue of national security readiness it has brought up, has been a "tipping point" in the race leading up to Ohio and Texas. "Just by merely asking the question and nothing more, millions of people understood what is the answer to that question."

As for Obama's mantra of change, Clinton said dismissively, "Change is part of life. The question is, are we going to make progress together?" For a closing argument, hers could hardly be clearer. "The exact right message that voters are focused on," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson told reporters on a conference call Monday morning. By Wednesday morning, we'll know if enough of those voters are listening.