IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hillary's last stand

Howard Fineman on why tonight's debate in Ohio is so critical for the Clinton campaign. A look at her chances, her potential strategy, and the bitter ironies surrounding the showdown.
/ Source:

In many ways, tonight is Sen. Hillary Clinton’s last stand.

The pressure's off Sen. Barack Obama in Cleveland this evening, he just has to keep on keepin’ on.

But if Clinton can’t dramatically convince voter/viewers of her essential point – that Obama is dangerously vague and ill-prepared for a fall campaign, let alone for the presidency – then it is very hard to see how she can stop the Obama Express in March.

There is a gathering sense in the media that Obama has gotten something of a free ride.

But, fair or not, it is still up to the Clinton campaign to slow that train’s momentum before it is too late, which it almost is.

This is the time and place for the former first lady to pull out all the stops.

The MSNBC debate will be broadcast on most NBC-affiliated stations in Ohio, making it by far the most pivotal event before the state's March 4 primary.

How can Hillary stop Obama?

Comparing his lack of foreign policy experience and knowledge to that of a certain Texas governor named George W. Bush probably won't work for Clinton.

That's because she voted to authorize his war in 2002.

Calling herself the working girl’s friend in Ohio also might might not work for Clinton.

That's because she was, at best, silent about the job-destroying trade agreements her husband championed while he occupied the White House.  

Clinton also faces three additional tactical problems.

Among likely Ohio Democratic voters, she is regarded very favorably in recent polls.

But among the rest of the electorate, in this state and elsewhere, Clinton remains, as they say, a polarizing figure. A recent USA TODAY/Gallup poll puts her "unfavorable" rating at 48 percent.

And it is a general rule of politics that attacks by unpopular candidates do not work.

They also generally don't work in the last days of a campaign, because they are too easily dismissed as an act of desperation.

And last, Obama has built a truly multi-racial, multi-generational coalition of supporters. Obama can easily turn an attack on him into an attack on THEM. He's done it before.

Clinton faces bitter ironies wherever she goes these days.

And tonight is no exception. Her last confrontation with Obama could very well be in Ohio. It was there, in 1991, her husband took his first real steps toward the presidency. And it's where Clinton's quest may end.

Some 15 years ago, Bill Clinton began his rise to the top as a pro-business centrist. In Cleveland, he assumed the chairmanship of an organization called the Democratic Leadership Council.

The DLC was pro-free trade, not opposed to tax cuts, and pledged to ignore the ethnic, regional and union politics that they believed had hampered the Democratic Party in the 1980s.

To prove a point in Cleveland, the DLC refused to allow the Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at its proceedings, relegating him to a church basement in a poor neighborhood.

The DLC was derided by some, including Jackson, as the “white guy caucus.”

Seventeen years later, Clinton is making her last stand, in Ohio, by positioning herself as the champion of the forgotten working family...and she's running as fast as she can from the free-trade agreements that were the hallmark of her husband and the DLC.

Even more ironic than that, an African-American candidate, supported by Jackson and, now, most other black leaders, is poised to lock up the Democratic nomination.

And he's doing it by attacking Clinton from BOTH the left and the right simultaneously.

Obama is criticizing Bill Clinton's trade agreements as giveaways to corporate America, and at the same time argues that his wife's health care plan smacks of draconian "Big Government."

In December, I wrote that Clinton’s campaign was teetering on the brink. It was...and it is.

But, even despite a somewhat poorly run campaign, her predicament, in many ways, is not her fault.

The world has changed in too many ways for her to deal with.

In 1991, Bill Clinton had it all figured out: run as a moderate Democrat against the tide of Reagan conservatism.

But she's never had a similarly clear theory, other than it was her turn and that she was “in it to win it.”

For the first Clinton, Cleveland was the right place at the right time.

Will it be for the second Clinton?

Hard to know, but hard to imagine.