The Clinton campaign’s press call with reporters this afternoon felt like a scene from a bizarro universe, where the suspension of disbelief was demanded at the door.
Reporters were primed for the call by a memo disseminated by the campaign earlier in the morning that referred to the four primaries on March 4 as “Obama Must-Wins.” It cited Obama’s spending advantage in Ohio and Texas and the fact that he has campaigned heavily in these states. “Should Senator Obama fail to score decisive victories with all of the resources and effort he is bringing to bear,” it said, “the message will be clear: Democrats, the majority of whom have favored Hillary in the primary contests held to date, have their doubts about Senator Obama and are having second thoughts about him as a prospective standard-bearer.”
The memo didn’t bother to answer some obvious questions, such as, Given that the Clinton campaign has lost 11 primaries in a row, how can Obama losing a few close contests on Tuesday in states where he has trailed in the polls be considered a repudiation of his campaign? And considering that streak of losses, how can this be a must-win for anyone but Clinton?
But on these questions and others, the Clinton representatives on the call, including communications director Howard Wolfson and chief strategist Mark Penn, stuck to the party line, no matter how ridiculous.
Ignoring that Clinton had a 15-point lead in Ohio and a 20-point lead in Texas just two months ago, Wolfson said that Obama has “every advantage” going into the contests. He pointed out that Obama “and his allies” are outspending Team Clinton by a minimum of 2 to 1 in Ohio and Texas. If Obama doesn’t win, Wolfson said, it will be a “very clear signal that Democrats want this campaign to continue and that there is a some concern and dissatisfaction with Sen. Obama’s campaign.”
When asked what it would mean if Obama won Texas, Ohio, and Vermont, but lost tiny Rhode Island, the campaign representatives said they couldn’t answer the question because they rejected its premise. But despite weeks of treating Ohio and Texas as their firewall, they we’re looking ahead to the states that vote after Texas and Ohio, saying, “16 states and territories… want to make their voices heard.” Guam, apparently, is now part of the plan.
The campaign also took questions on a new TV advertisement it is running in Ohio that depicts children sleeping in bed, with the voice over, “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing — something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.”
In response to the claim that the ad is trying to use fear to gain votes, Mark Penn said it is a “positive ad” with “soft images.” Multiple members of the campaign insisted that the ad merely raises the issue of national security, and the question of which candidate is better prepared in the event of a crisis.
When asked to point to a national security test that Senator Clinton had faced, the campaign responded that it was a “moment of test” when she stood up in China and said “women’s rights are human rights.” They added that Senator Clinton has worked with high-ranking members of the military through her post on the Armed Services Committee.
Barack Obama responded to the ad with this statement:
It asks a legitimate question. It says, who do you want answering the phone in the White House when it’s 3:00 a.m. and something has happened in the world. It’s a legitimate question. And we’ve seen these ads before. They’re usually the kind that play upon people’s fears and try to scare up votes.
I don’t think these ads will work this time because the question is not about picking up the phone. The question is, what kind of judgment will you exercise when you pick up that phone. In fact, we have had a red phone moment; it was the decision to invade Iraq.
Ignoring the substance of that response, Penn repeatedly insisted that Obama had given the ad an implicit stamp of approval because he used the phrase “legitimate question.” Wolfson added that it is an “insult to voters” that a conversation about national security was being considered fear-mongering by the press and the blogosphere.
The call eventually returned to the topic of expectations. Wolfson dismissed the Obama campaign’s argument from earlier in the day that Clinton had no chance to catch it in the delegate count as “mathematical games and fantasies.” If Obama didn’t win the two states Clinton long insisted she would win, Wolfson added, the press should consider it a “profound signal about Democratic unease about his candidacy.”