NEW YORK, NY—It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Not long ago Hillary Clinton seemed a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. She led in all the early states and dominated the national polls. If you had to bet then, you might have assumed her Super Tuesday speech would have marked her victory over her Democratic rivals.
It didn’t turn out that way. When Clinton arrived at the Grand Ballroom in the New Yorker hotel tonight, everyone in the room knew that the Democratic race would go on. Hillary might not have known it before she began her speech shortly before 11 p.m., but minutes later it became clear that another candidate would win the majority of the Super Tuesday nominating contests and take close to half of the delegates at stake.
Really, it was not supposed to happen like this. After all, the Democratic nominating process’s rules favor a well-funded frontrunner—and that was supposed to be Clinton. But how could the Clinton campaign have anticipated the rise of an upstart freshman Senator from Illinois? How could they have guessed he would win two of the first three primaries and raise more than twice as much money as Clinton did in the month leading up to Super Tuesday? How could they have predicted Barack Obama?
She couldn’t have predicted it, of course, and her Super Tuesday speech reflected that. More than anything, it showed that Clinton remains unsure of how to blunt Obama’s momentum. Yes, the speech was tightly written, and it showed off her greatest strengths: plain, straightforward talk and a clear mastery of the issues. She certainly stayed on message.
But it’s important to keep Super Tuesday in context. In today’s lightning-fast media cycle, it’s easy to forget how far back Obama was just six or seven weeks ago. But he has made huge gains since mid-December. He is raising money faster and gaining supporters quicker than Clinton is. So a standard frontrunner speech—attacking the other party and laying off the same-party snipes—wasn’t going to cut it last night. This speech was an opportunity to cut Obama off at the pass.
Hillary needed to seize the moment. Her supporters knew that, even if her speechwriters didn’t. There were plenty of applause lines in Clinton’s speech. She thanked her mother, “Who was born before women could vote and is watching her daughter on this stage tonight.” She attacked Republicans: “Let me be clear—I won’t let anyone swift boat this country’s future.” She quoted Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. But it was her two most well-worn attacks on Obama—his failure to embrace health care mandates and his alleged inexperience, compared with what she says is her ability “to serve on day one”—that drew the wildest cheers. Criticizing her opponent was a good move. But many voters have already heard these critiques repeatedly, and they are obviously not resonating. Clinton needed something new. She didn’t deliver.
Obama, in contrast, pressed the attack last night. He hit Clinton hard—criticizing her on everything from her Iraq vote to her lobbyist support to her supposed waffling on torture. He was careful to reference his recent gains, calling his campaign a “movement” and “a chorus that cannot be ignored.” It has certainly become clear that Obama does better the more people know him. He has proven he can raise more money faster than Clinton can, and he certainly seems to have the momentum going forward from Super Tuesday.
Still, it’s important not to get too caught up in Obamamentum. Hillary Clinton will still be the frontrunner—but just barely—tomorrow morning. He’ll have the money and the momentum, but she’ll have more delegates and superdelegates—and delegates are what counts in the end. The big question going forward is one of time. There are about 450 pledged delegates at stake in the remaining February primaries, and just short of 500 up for grabs in March. Can Obama take advantage of his momentum and his cash to catch up in the delegate count before the calendar runs out? One thing is for sure: If Clinton can’t come up with some new criticisms or a good way to blunt Obama’s surge, she’s in trouble. As it stands, talking up her health care plan and credentials and attacking Republicans just doesn’t seem to be enough.