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Clinton soldiers on, into a darkening horizon

To her longtime friends, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton sounds unusually philosophical on the phone these days. She rarely uses phrases like “when I’m president” anymore.
Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Clinton
Top aides to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have begun to face up to the campaign's possible end after the Texas and Ohio primaries March 4.Allen Fredrickson / Reuters file
/ Source: The New York Times

To her longtime friends, Senator sounds unusually philosophical on the phone these days. She rarely uses phrases like “when I’m president” anymore. Somber at times, determined at others, she talks to aides and confidants about the importance of focusing on a good day’s work. No drapes are being measured in her mind’s eye, they say.

And Mrs. Clinton has begun thanking some of her major supporters for helping her run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“When this is all over, I’m really looking forward to seeing you,” she told one of those supporters by phone the other day.

Mrs. Clinton has not given up, in her head or her heart, her quest to return to the White House, advisers say. But as resolute as she is, she no longer exudes the supreme confidence that was her trademark before the first defeat, in Iowa in January. And then there were more humbling blows, aides say: replacing her campaign manager on Feb. 10, then losing the Wisconsin primary and her hold on the women’s vote there last Tuesday.

Cold, hard political realism
If she is not temperamentally suited to reckon with the possibility of losing quite yet, advisers say, she is also a cold, hard realist about politics — at some point, she is known to say, someone will win and someone will not.

“She has a real military discipline that, now that times are tough, has really kicked into gear,” said , a friend and informal adviser to Mrs. Clinton, and a former chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party. “When she’s on the road and someone has a negative news story, she says, ‘I don’t want to hear it; I don’t need to hear it.’ I think she wants to protect herself from that and stay focused.

“That said, she knows that there will be an end,” Ms. Hope said. “She is a very smart woman.”

Over take-out meals and late-night drinks, some regrets and recriminations have set in, and top aides have begun to face up to the campaign’s possible end after the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. Engaging in hindsight, several advisers have now concluded that they were not smart to use former President as much as they did, that “his presence, aura and legacy caused national fatigue with the Clintons,” in the words of one senior adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to assess the campaign candidly.

The campaign’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, and its communications director, , have expressed frustration with the difficulty of “running against a phenomenon” in Senator ; their attacks have not stopped Mr. Obama from winning the last 11 contests. Some aides said Mr. Penn and the former campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, had conceived and executed a terribly flawed campaign, something Ms. Solis Doyle disputes. Both she and Mr. Penn have been especially criticized as not planning a political strategy to compete in the primaries after Feb. 5.

“I do believe we built a good organization — 700 people, $100 million, nationwide offices, and a strong base of support and endorsements that helped us win big states like California and New Jersey,” Ms. Solis Doyle said in an interview. “Every time people have written us off, like after Iowa, we’ve come back.”

Comeback less likely?
There is a widespread feeling among donors and some advisers, though, that a comeback this time may be improbable. Her advisers said internal polls showed a very tough race to win the Texas primary — a contest that no less than Mr. Clinton has said is a “must win.” And while advisers are drawing some hope from Mrs. Clinton’s indefatigable nature, some are burning out.

Morale is low. After 13 months of dawn-to-dark seven-day weeks, the staff is exhausted. Some have taken to going home early — 9 p.m. — turning off their BlackBerrys, and polishing off bottles of wine, several senior staff members said.

Some advisers have been heard yelling at close friends and colleagues. In a much-reported incident, Mr. Penn and the campaign advertising chief, Mandy Grunwald, had a screaming match over strategy recently that prompted another senior aide, Guy Cecil, to leave the room. “I have work to do — you’re acting like kids,” Mr. Cecil said, according to three people in the room.

Others have taken several days off, despite it being crunch time. Some have grown depressed, be it over Mr. Obama’s momentum, the attacks on the campaign’s management from outside critics or their view that the news media has been much rougher on Mrs. Clinton than on Mr. Obama.

And some of her major fund-raisers have begun playing down their roles, asking reporters to refer to them simply as “donors,” to try to rein in their image as unfailingly loyal to the Clintons.

And yet, advisers say, the mood was even grimmer in early February, when the campaign was running out of money and the possibility of losing some major Feb. 5 primaries, like California and New Jersey, was unsettling Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and her aides. (She ended up winning those states.) The turbulence this time, some advisers say, has turned into greater focus and determination toward clear targets: the Ohio and Texas primaries.

In interviews with 15 aides and advisers to Mrs. Clinton, not a single one expressed any regrets that they were not working for Mr. Obama. Indeed, some aides said they were baffled that a candidate who had been in the for only three years and was a state lawmaker in Illinois before that was now outpacing a seasoned figure like Mrs. Clinton. And to a person, these aides and advisers praised Mrs. Clinton and said that she had been a better candidate than her campaign strategy and operation reflected.

“Whatever frustrations she may have, or that exist with the campaign and the missteps, her commitment to our country and her reasons for running are her guiding force now,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from New York and a major fund-raiser for the campaign.

“That doesn’t mean she’s too disciplined or without feeling — it means just the opposite,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “It means her beliefs speak to real faith and dedication.”

Avoiding pep talks
As part of that focus, Mrs. Clinton has avoided giving pep talks to her aides, because a pep talk might suggest that the campaign is heading in an irretrievable direction. Instead, as she always has, she talks to her aides on the trail and at headquarters about the tasks at hand, pursuing them in checklist fashion —impressing some with her hardiness, while suggesting a joyless or workmanlike feel to others.

“We talked recently and she sounded totally resolute, totally in it until the end, and in typical style she just isn’t getting into regrets,” said Susan Thomases, an old friend of Mrs. Clinton and a former aide to Mr. Clinton. “Hillary is not a fatalistic person — this is no woe-is-me woman.”

Mrs. Clinton has, though, increasingly sought to keep her fate in perspective. In her debate in Texas on Thursday with Mr. Obama, she delivered what some viewers saw as a valedictory — but what she said was a simple expression from the heart — when she spoke warmly about the race and her rival.

“I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored,” she said. “And you know, whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.”

She found herself explaining on Friday that the remark was not meant as some sort of farewell. Yet to some friends, she is in fact acting differently; to others, the situation has become simply heartbreaking. When Mr. Clinton said last week that his wife had to win in Texas and Ohio, it was not only the first public admission by a senior member of her circle that her candidacy was on the line, it was also a moment that deepened the feeling of shock felt by some of her supporters.

“A lot of her friends are just feeling, ‘How could this be happening to her?’ ” said , a friend of the Clintons and a former strategist to Mr. Clinton. “It’s just hard to understand. She is a very sympathetic person. I hope it turns around for her.”

Trying for an upbeat mood
Through it all, Mrs. Clinton has not retreated into a shell. She asks her aides about their children, spouses and partners. She tries to keep the mood upbeat on the campaign plane, such as recently joking about how Ohio is so diverse that it sometimes feels like five different states. She looks and seems at her happiest after working rope lines and talking to people after round tables, hearing their stories and receiving hugs.

On occasion she has looked backward. The strategy hatched by her advisers, her husband and herself — to run as an incumbent on a strength-and-experience message — was clearly not enough to carry her for 13 months. (It did work well for a time, if polls were any measure.) But mostly she has tried to look forward, and has pointedly not talked to her staff about the notion that she might drop out someday.

“Hillary is incredibly tough — she grew up with two brothers and a strong father in the Midwest, so she knows a challenge,” said Ms. Solis Doyle, the former campaign manager, who has worked for her on and off since 1991 until she was replaced this month. “She has gone through so much, where someone like me would hide under the covers. But she gets up. She works. She tries.”