One month ago Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) faced an uphill climb in North Carolina. A few days from Tuesday's primary, Clinton has clearly closed in on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and there are now whispers of a Clinton win among her state-wide supporters.
The Clinton campaign continues to set the bar low, intending to spin even a close loss to Obama as proof that superdelegates cannot trust the party's nomination to such a weak candidate. However, keep in mind how Clinton managed to make up ground in a state where some polls had her trailing by as much as 20 points. The Clinton campaign has largely lucked into its recent momentum.
Clinton must first thank the state's Republican Party. It's decision to put the most strident anti-Obama ad, one with a heavy dose of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, into the mix two weeks ahead of the primary has rebounded to Clinton's advantage. The ad was ostensibly directed at the two Democratic contenders for the governor's race, both of whom have endorsed Obama.
But a TV ad featuring Rev. Wright damning America from the pulpit presented rural white voters with an uncomfortable image of Obama while at the same time freeing Clinton from having to do that job herself. It was win-win for the Clinton team.
Incidentally, state conservatives will not soon forget John McCain's sanctimonious heartburn over the NC GOP ad. They did not like the Republican nominee much on the issues before the flap, and now they find him pandering—and soft to boot.
Better still for Clinton, Rev. Wright decided to drop by the National Press Club this week to reamplify his previous remarks. This kept the story fresh for another few days and led Obama—prodded along, rumor has it, by spot polling in NC showing the Wright issue sapping his support among well-educated white voters—to finally denounce his former pastor.
Still, the potential for huge numbers of newly registered voters to turn out for Obama next week has clearly troubled the Clinton camp. They were not likely to be turned off by the 24/7 focus on Wright. They were on a mission to vote. But the Clinton network had an answer for that.
The Institute for Southern Studies (ISS), a left-liberal outfit in Durham with a hair-trigger on all voting rights issues, claims that the answer was good ol' voter suppression courtesy of a group with connections to the Clinton campaign. A Beltway non-profit with the tongue-twisting name of Women's Voices Women Vote has made robo-calls around the state—as it did ahead of other primaries—telling potential voters that the "packet" they must sign to be eligible to vote will soon arrive in the mail.
But no such "packet" exists, and the deadline for registration has long since passed. As such, ISS finds this calling effort "misleading"—and with good reason. Turns out one of the group's executives is a frequent contributor to the Clinton campaign, amid other interesting connections:
Women's Voices Executive Director Joe Goode worked for Bill Clinton's election campaign in 1992 as a pollster; the group's website says he was intimately involved in "development and implementation of all polling and focus groups done for the presidential primary and general election campaigns" for Clinton.
Women's Voices board member John Podesta, former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton, donated $2,300 to Hillary Clinton on April 19, 2007, according to OpenSecrets.org.
What is a Clinton campaign without a little funny business? The size of the turnout among black voters remains the great unknown for Tuesday; anything which dampens that turnout will be to Clinton's advantage.
One above-board factor the campaign can claim credit for is turning Bill Clinton loose to do his Bubba routine among small towns of displaced blue-collar workers. The former president remains popular with the NASCAR crowd and he never fails to skewer the Bush administration, noting, for example, that he left office with a federal budget surplus.
Much less important—indeed, bordering on the insignificant, despite the spin given it by consultants with the ear of gullible reporters—is Clinton's endorsement by North Carolina Governor Mike Easley. On paper Easley is a four-time statewide winner, including two wins as attorney general before his current run as governor.
But Easley's lame-duck year has been marked by political scandal in Raleigh, with one Democratic ally after another under investigation, and the former Speaker of the House now serving time in the federal pen. Add in the fact that governor's office is institutionally weak and that Easley has no campaign for another office in the field, and Hillary gets very little bump out on the campaign trail from this backing.
However, there is no denying that whatever the cause, Clinton is on the upswing while Obama seems to be treading water and is focusing on the insider game of locking down superdelegates. Weekend events and news coverage will be crucial for both candidates. As improbable as it seemed 30 days ago, Clinton has a shot to deny Obama a big victory. This would send the Democrats a loud-and-clear message: Pick me, I can win this thing.
Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.