Clinton's Hard Road Gets Harder

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Joe Raedle / Getty

Senator Hillary Clinton speaks in Indiana on May 6

Hillary Clinton still believes that the realities of economic hardship can quash the politics of hope, that American voters will choose cheaper gas before inspiration, that stadium-sized crowds will never matter as much as the price of milk. In an era of tight wallets, she believes the fight of a hardscrabble realist is more powerful than the potential of a visionary.

And so lately, in her own way, Clinton has been reveling in the nation's economic downturn, and the recent struggles of Barack Obama. But the election results Tuesday night may give others doubt about her clear convictions. At the very least, they are likely to temper the crucial support of uncommitted superdelegates, who are crucial to keeping alive her slim hopes of winning the presidential nomination.

While more voters than ever before in a Democratic primary this year pegged the economy as their number one issue, an emphasis that traditionally favors Clinton, she lost North Carolina by a decisive 14 point margin and only eked out a two point victory in Indiana. When it was all over, Clinton ended the night no closer to winning the nomination than when she began the day—in fact, she emerged an even bigger mathematical long-shot to taking the lead either in pledged delegates or the popular vote.

Not that she would ever admit to such harsh realities. "Thank you, Indiana," she declared just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, at a time when most news organizations still considered the race too close to call. "It's full speed onto the White House." For a moment, it seemed, even she had embraced the audacity of hope.

But assuming Clinton resists more calls to drop out, such a rosy outlook will not long remain her campaign's theme. All year, Clinton has been the Democratic candidate of the concrete, the one focused on the tangible transaction between voter and politician. Her stump speech is built not on a story as much as a laundry list of the things she will give to voters. "This is not some abstract exercise for me," she told a crowd in Evansville late Monday night. "This is hard work."

And she certainly makes it appear so. Before New Hampshire apple growers, she speaks of apple subsidies. At a North Carolina train station, she promises high-speed rail. In southern Indiana, she talks up clean coal. She tells college kids that she will get them lower student loan rates, the sick that she will provide universal health care, and the poor that they will be favored more in the tax code. She even promises new federally funded scientific breakthroughs to cure afflictions like diabetes and autism.

It is all part of a campaign directed squarely at voters who want something they can bank from their candidates. Her campaign long ago junked the soaring Celine Dion campaign jingle for the theme from "Rocky" and Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," a fierce woman's anthem for the forgotten worker.

By contrast, Obama has offered voters a very different kind of transaction. Instead of new things, he has emphasized a whole new way of thinking about politics. "It's about whether we will have a president and a party that will lead us to a brighter future," he declared Tuesday night, in his North Carolina victory speech. He has presented himself as a transformative figure who can float outside of American history, undefined by his race, his Harvard education, his globe-trotting childhood, or the culture wars of the 1960s. He sells himself as the man who could "change the world," and millions of people have flocked to the message.

The last two months, however, have tested all of Obama's lofty offerings. An economy slipping towards recession and some troubling comments by both himself and his former pastor have combined to force the candidate to come down to earth a bit and emphasize more tangible, immediate responses. With the help of Republican John McCain, Clinton has repeatedly attacked Obama's claimed strengths, attempting to knock him from his transformative pedestal. Some of the attacks have had an impact, especially among the white working class, Hillary Clinton's base, raising questions about Obama's viability in a general election.

But Obama's relatively strong performance on Tuesday showed that he may have learned from his stumbles of late and found a way to make a more direct connection with voters; while he continued to trail Clinton in key demographics such as white blue collar voters, he narrowed those margins that had opened up in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Still, there is no doubt that Clinton's approach has left quite a chink in Obama's once seemingly invincible armor. At Clinton's events this week, Obama's troubles echoed through the crowd. "You'll never see Obama in a place like this," said Steve Batterman, a 28-year old machinist apprentice from Hebron, Ind., after a Hillary rally at a local fire station. Of course Batterman was mistaken. Obama travels to small, rural venues with some regularity. But the impression has been established, and is widespread among Clinton supporters. "He seems like he is too good for the common people, and I don't like that," Batterman continued, an intricate flame tattoo coursing up his forearm.

This is the message that the Clinton team loves to hear about Obama. "He is all about economists and playing to the faculty lounge," said Doug Hattaway, one of Clinton's message men. "She's always been more focused on making a tangible difference in people's lives." At the time, he was speaking of the debate over a temporary tax cut in gas taxes that Clinton supports and Obama opposes. For Clinton, it does not matter that the gas tax is almost impossible to pass this summer, with an unfavorable Congress and the threat of a presidential veto. What matters is that Clinton is seen as the one who wants to help Americans, while Obama (who argues that the measure is a gimmick from which the touted savings would never be passed onto the consumer) is the one who flies above their concerns. "I have met so many people here in Indiana and across America, who feel invisible," Clinton said.

In recent weeks, Clinton has upped her populist message to drive this point home. She speaks out against the oil companies and countries that "have us over the barrel," and promises to challenge the market manipulation of OPEC. She chastises "Wall Street money brokers" and speaks of China like it was a malicious power, exporting "contaminated food, lead laced toys and polluted pharmaceuticals."

For many voters at her rallies, all that mattered was that she was offering something, even if they knew economists said the impact would be marginal. "She's going to do something immediately," said Brenda Moore, a retired social service worker from Asheboro, N.C., who planned to vote for Clinton over Obama. "He says, 'Change. We're ready for change.' But he doesn't get down to the specifics."

All this tough rhetoric has yielded a growing concern within the Democratic Party that Clinton's chief legacy in this campaign will be a mortally wounded Democratic candidate for the general election. It is a concern that Clinton refutes, showing every sign that she remains determined to take her case all the way to the convention floor. "It is so important that we count the votes of Florida and Michigan," Clinton announced Tuesday night, a prospect that is sure to divide the party through the summer. "It would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by 48 states."

The coming weeks are sure to only complicate matters further. While Clinton may now face new fundraising woes and pressure to drop out for the good of the party, the demographics and early polling suggests that Clinton should perform well in places like West Virginia next Tuesday and Kentucky the following week. The Oregon primary, on May 20, is believe to play to Obama's strengths, and will be followed by primaries in Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota.

This promises weeks more of conflicting news cycles, split decisions and Clinton wins that are tempered only by the mathematical realities of the delegate fight. It is a campaign that almost no one expected, but for which the Clinton family seems well prepared to face with a sort of steely resolve. "People ask us all the time, 'Well how do you keep going?'" Clinton said, as she accepted victory in Indiana before it was officially declared. "We love getting out and meeting people."