After Ohio, a long, puzzling hiatus

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While not quite the ecstatic victory that Sen. Hillary Clinton enjoyed in New Hampshire on the night of Jan. 8, Clinton’s wins in Ohio and Texas Tuesday were just as significant.

Perhaps more so.

She did in fact reach the high bar set by the Obama campaign itself on Monday.

“She has to win by a very significant amount to in fact recoup in delegates and become more viable,” said Obama supporter, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in a briefing for reporters on Monday. Clinton was on course to win Ohio by ten percentage points or more.

Both Clinton and her rival, Sen. Barack Obama, now must contend with something baffling and unprecedented in recent primary seasons — a seven-week hiatus which they must fill with new arguments against each other. Yes, Wyoming and Mississippi will hold contests during that seven-week period but relatively few delegates are at stake in those two states.

The seven-week plateau raises the specter of an even more damaging fight, the very fear that Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, both of whom are neutral, voiced in interviews Monday with NBC’s Ken Strickland.

Clinton campaign communications director Howard Wolfson, in a conference call with reporters Monday, euphemistically called the seven-week hiatus “an interesting new phase” in the struggle between Obama and Clinton. He suggested the phase would be filled with questions fired from Clinton about Obama’s relationship with indicted Chicago businessman Tony Rezko whose trial on federal corruption charges is now underway in Chicago.

Huckabee concedes
Clinton’s victory came coincidentally on the same night that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee conceded the Republican presidential contest to Sen. John McCain.

While McCain is resting and preparing a summer and fall strategic plan, Clinton and Obama will both need to raise more money, funds that might better have been used against McCain.

With her Ohio victory, Clinton has won in a high unemployment, industrial state. Ohio’s jobless rate of six percent is more than a percentage point higher than the national average.

If the dominant theme of the 2008 election is to be the economy and if that issue plays to the Democrats’ strengths, then Clinton now has ammunition to make the argument that she is the stronger candidate to carry the economic message in the fall campaign.

In the very counties with the highest unemployment rates – counties along the Pennsylvania border and along the Ohio River, Clinton scored some of her highest percentages in the state, winning some of them with 75 percent or more.

Obama for some reason cannot close the deal or land the knockout blow.

Clinton bolsters her base in Ohio
Exit poll interviews in Ohio indicate Clinton dominated among:

  • Women voters (she won nearly three out of five)
  • White voters (she won two out of three)
  • People over age 65 (she got nearly three-quarters of them)
  • Catholics (she won nearly two-thirds of them)
  • Those earning less than $50,000 (she won nearly three-fifths of them)

In fact, for some reason, among white voters Obama performed much worse in Ohio, where he won one-third of them, than in another Midwestern industrial state, Wisconsin. Just two weeks ago he won 54 percent of white voters in the state.

The big story on the night of the Wisconsin primary was that Obama was starting to take away Clinton’s base. The story Tuesday night in Ohio is that Obama was going backwards, in effect ceding parts of the Democratic electorate he seemed to have won two weeks ago.

Even without knowing what the outcome would be in Ohio, the line of argument from Wolfson Monday was that if Obama could not win with all of what the Clinton camp portrayed as his advantages, such as favorable news media coverage, then “buyer’s remorse is setting in among Democrats.”

That remains to be seen. But it will take many weeks to see it and that in itself is not good news for Democrats who hoped to wrap up the primary season and unify the party.

On the day before Clinton won her upset victory in the New Hampshire primary, a day on which many thought that Obama would surely win it, Joe Trippi, then a strategist for John Edwards, said, “On Wednesday morning, people will wake up and say, ‘Jeez, this guy (Obama) is going to be our nominee.’”

At that point, Trippi predicted, a closer scrutiny would occur: “The world is going to say, who the hell is this guy?”

Now many weeks later, voters presumably know much more about Obama. But the outcome in Ohio suggested that perhaps voters still don’t know enough to clinch the argument in Obama’s favor.