Dissecting What Went Wrong for Clinton

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton addresses supporters following the Kentucky primary.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton addresses supporters at an election night rally in Louisville following the Kentucky primary on Tuesday. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton appears on stage following the Kentucky primary.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton arrives on stage with her husband and daughter during her election night celebration on Tuesday, following the Kentucky primary. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is promising to stay in the Democratic race and keep fighting for the nomination. But so much has changed for her in the past year and a half, when she has gone from being the dominant front-runner to the likely runner-up.

When Clinton launched her campaign in January 2007, the announcement said that she was in it to win it.

For several months, it looked as though she would win. She had money, endorsements and a huge lead in the polls — everything she needed to convince most of the political world that her nomination was all but inevitable.

Her campaign set out to prove that she could be a tough, credible commander in chief, a very high bar for a female candidate. Clinton cleared that bar by dominating the field in debate after debate. She also made Illinois Sen. Barack Obama look weak and inexperienced in South Carolina, where he answered a question about a hypothetical Sept. 11-style attack and said he would respond by first checking in with the first responders.

Clinton's answer, in contrast, communicated strength and experience.

"I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate," she said. "If there were nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond."

But Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, who is not affiliated with any candidate, said Clinton made a fundamental, strategic mistake.

"She clearly went with the wrong message at the beginning," he said. "She ran under the banner of experience. We've known for two years that the Democratic primary voters would rather have a candidate of change than the candidate of experience by 2 to 1."

"She didn't have to do that, but she did. It was a serious mistake," he added.

It's true that Clinton was not as new on the scene as Obama. But even former President Ronald Reagan, running for re-election at age 73, managed to run as the candidate of change.

Clinton Out-Organized by Obama

After a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton bounced back in New Hampshire. Then she could not do any more than tie Obama on Super Tuesday, when he focused his efforts on smaller, mostly red states that she ignored.

"The Clinton campaign acted as if they didn't know the rules, acted as if only large states counted," Mellman said. "And the truth is they came out fairly even in delegates in large states and allowed themselves to get creamed in smaller states. And that's really where Obama built up his delegate lead."

The Clinton camp made another false assumption by thinking that the race would be wrapped up by Feb. 5.

Pollster Stan Greenberg, who worked for former President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, said everyone assumed the Democratic primary race would be finished much earlier.

But when it continued, he said, the Clinton team was tough and experienced but not flexible enough.

"They were not willing to regroup and move to the second plan, Plan B, until after they were out of money and after they were deep in a hole on elected delegates," he said.

Clinton Discovered Her Populist Voice Too Late

Clinton's Plan B, which worked in later primaries such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, was full-throated populism. Clinton became a tenacious, gritty fighter for the crowds of blue-collar voters who became her base of support.

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, also unaffiliated with either candidate, said that approach might have saved her if there were more votes left to be won.

"I don't think it was until, really, it was almost too late to reverse the outcome that she found her own voice, which was as a tribune for hard-working people and blue-collar voters, which she's done quite effectively. But it was very late in the game," he said.

The Michigan and Florida Factor

There was another quirk of fate, Carrick said, that hurt Clinton: Michigan and Florida. The two huge states took themselves off the playing field by breaking the rules and holding their nominating contests in January instead of mid-February, as originally scheduled.

"Once again, the calendar is destiny in primary politics," Carrick said. "The Michigan decision to try to go early was a disaster for her. The Florida decision was a disaster for her. It would have been much better if they had stayed in the calendar, where they would have helped her."

Obama as a Formidable Opponent

Bob Kerrey, who ran for president in 1992 and lost the nomination to former President Clinton, says Clinton's tactical errors in her campaign pale in comparison with a much bigger, much simpler reason for her troubles — mainly, that her opponent is a great politician.

"I'm not sure Bill Clinton could have beaten Barack Obama," he said. "Every mistake that she made, if she had not been running against Barack Obama, wouldn't even be a footnote. They're exaggerated. They're magnified because he kept out-raising her, because he was drawing enormous crowds, because he kept getting better."

Now Obama is fewer than 70 delegates away from the nomination. Clinton is left making hopeful declarations like the one she made at her victory rally Tuesday night in Louisville, Ky.: "I'm going to keep making our case until we have a nominee, whoever she may be."

It's an extraordinary reversal of fortune for a candidate who seemed unbeatable less than six months ago.

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