Clinton tries to lower expectations after long battle for Pennsylvania

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) campaign is trying to keep expectations for Tuesday’s long-awaited Pennsylvania primary manageable for fear of a surprise showing by rival Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

After six weeks of intense campaigning by the two candidates and record registration in a state that offers just about every demographic, the results, at this point, are anyone’s guess.

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But Clinton’s efforts at lowering expectations were complicated late Monday morning, when the Drudge Report posted what it said was a internal campaign memo showing an 11-point lead for Clinton.

The campaign immediately denied the poll, calling the report “an effort to falsely raise expectations.”

While Obama has gone through periods of gains during the protracted Keystone State battle, polls have shown that every step forward was followed by a step back for the Illinois senator.

What remains to be seen is whether Obama can make inroads into the white, blue-collar rural areas that are seen as Clinton’s strongest demographic or whether Clinton can halt any surge Obama might mount with more affluent, educated voters in Southeast Pennsylvania.

Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said the big question mark centers around who can turn out their voters in the regions that are the most friendly.

“He has to get huge turnout in Philadelphia and the southeast,” Madonna said.

When asked if Clinton was making any inroads into the Philadelphia suburbs — home to the soccer and security moms of elections past — Madonna said: “I hear that, but then I get anecdotal reports that he’s going to mop her up.

“You almost don’t know what to make of it,” Madonna said. “We’re all wait-and-see.”

The campaigns have turned the remaining days of the six-week primary battle into an all-out assault.

Dueling conference calls and ads over the week were the culmination of a long fight that saw some of the campaigns’ biggest gaffes exposed, from Obama’s “bitter” comments to Clinton’s flap over her trip to Bosnia.

On Monday, Clinton went up with an ad that her chief strategist, Geoff Garin, called her “closing argument.”

The ad, entitled “Who do you think has what it takes?” features footage from some of the country’s most challenging eras, and quotes former President Harry Truman in saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

The ad is similar to those Clinton has run on the eve of other crucial contests, questioning Obama’s preparedness for the office.

The Obama campaign sought to rebut that argument by using former President Bill Clinton’s campaign theme that hope should trump fear in a campaign, complete with a poster featuring then-running mates Clinton and Al Gore under the words “Vote your hopes, not your fears.”

“When Sen. Clinton voted with President Bush to authorize the war in Iraq, she made a tragically bad decision that diverted our military from the terrorists who attacked us, and allowed Osama bin Laden to escape and regenerate his terrorist network,” said Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, in a statement. “It’s ironic that she would borrow the president’s tactics in her own campaign and invoke bin Laden to score political points.  

Obama has made a significant play for the state after initial efforts to downplay efforts there.

The Clinton campaign said on a conference call Monday that Obama had outspent the Clinton campaign by a ratio of 3-to-1.

“He is trying to knock Sen. Clinton out of this race,” Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton adviser, said on the call.

Much of the discussion in the final days before the primary, however, has centered around the margin of victory Clinton needs to continue in the race.

The overwhelming consensus is that a loss would spell the end for Clinton. Other than that, there is widespread disagreement about what would constitute a victory given the big early leads she enjoyed in Pennsylvania six weeks ago.

Larry Ceisler, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia, said he sees three options. A Clinton loss or a narrow win means she “would have to seriously rethink” whether she stays in the race.

A five- or nine-point win for Clinton is a “push,” and double digits would provide her with a “strong case” to take to superdelegates to persuade them that she is “a strong closer.”

Wolfson and Garin spent most of Monday’s call trying to downplay expectations like those.

Wolfson said he rejects “the notion that we need to achieve a certain standard of victory other than victory.”

Both men said traditional expectations are inoperable in the state because the Obama campaign has devoted so many resources to Pennsylvania.

“Under other circumstances, I think it would be fair to set the bar higher, but I really think [the Obama campaign] has changed the arithmetic here,” Garin said.

Clinton has another big stake on Tuesday night. New records from over the weekend, confirmed by Wolfson, show that Clinton has $9.3 million cash on hand, but more than $10 million in debt.

Because Obama continues to hold an overwhelming cash advantage, a big win for Clinton might be the only way she can refill her coffers before the campaign moves to Indiana, North Carolina and beyond.

For his part, Obama reportedly said Monday morning that he will do better than people expect.

Considering the commonwealth is looking at record turnout as a result of record registration, analysts like Madonna might be wise to take a “wait-and-see” approach.