For Clinton's fans, 'This is our '68'

/ Source: National Journal

When Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign found its back against the wall last week, Amy Rao headed straight for the Alamo.

On the Saturday before Tuesday's Texas primary, Rao spent much of her afternoon lugging Clinton yard signs and fliers down a long street of funky, stylish houses in a quiet suburb just north of downtown San Antonio and its fabled old mission.

Walking with a friend in the warm, hazy sunshine, Rao worked through a list of addresses provided by the campaign. If no one came to the door, she left a flier. Whenever someone answered the bell, she pursued conversions with a friendly but resolute persistence. "I have never worked this hard for a candidate," Rao said between stops. "I wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'What else can I do?' "

Did I mention that Rao, a compact, energetic woman with five children, lives in Palo Alto, Calif.? Or that she was among 40 Bay Area women who flew to San Antonio on their own dime to volunteer for Clinton last weekend? Or that when Rao is not buttonholing strangers in Texas she is hard at work as the founder and CEO of a Silicon Valley computer storage company with $140 million in annual revenue?

There is a tendency to credit all of the energy in the Democratic presidential race to Barack Obama. And he has unquestionably inspired great passion. Fifteen hundred people turned out in February just to greet the aides opening his headquarters in nearby Austin. That office was so crowded last Sunday that some volunteers were dialing voters while standing in hallways because every desk was filled.

But Clinton's gritty wins in Ohio and Texas are a reminder that she has built deep, durable connections to Latinos, seniors, working-class whites, and, above all, women. In fact, although Clinton still trails Obama in the overall popular vote, she has now won more primary votes than any Democratic nominee in history, according to political analyst Rhodes Cook.

Clinton has sparked particular passion among women who have made their own difficult ascent in the workplace. Shortly before Rao started canvassing last Saturday, she sat among dozens of mostly female volunteers in Clinton's San Antonio office calling voters with a palpable sense of urgency. Determination, if not desperation, defined the mood.

Nancy Patterson, a 54-year-old communications technician from San Antonio, had taken a week's vacation to volunteer for Clinton. "I like Obama, but he needs to wait his turn," she said. "I feel if it was the opposite -- a more experienced man and a more eloquent woman, [the voters] would go with the man. But because she's a woman, [experience] is discounted."

Patterson remembered working in an office where her supervisor kept a copy of Playboy on his desk, and she saw in Clinton's rise an echo of her own struggles. "I know what she had to put up with," Patterson said intently. She pounded her fist on the table. "She's giving her all," Patterson said. "I want to give my all."

Even after Clinton's twin big-state victories on Tuesday, Obama retains a solid delegate lead and remains the likely, though not certain, nominee. But Clinton's resurgence reconfirmed that these two compelling candidates have divided their party almost in half, with mirror-image coalitions of stony stability. For months, analysts have asked how Clinton might reach out to Obama's supporters if she wins. Given the loyalty that Clinton's supporters demonstrated on Tuesday, it may be time to ask the opposite: If Obama wins, what suitable role can he offer her in the Democratic campaign or his administration? Each may need the other precisely because neither is likely to decisively beat the other.

Those are decisions for a later day. In the meantime, even those caught in this maelstrom are marveling at it. Making calls from Clinton's San Antonio office on Saturday, Maria Meier, a young Los Angeles-based political consultant, looked for comparisons to the epic competition 40 years ago between Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Eugene McCarthy. "At least in my lifetime, there's never been a presidential race like this," Meier said. "They say 1968 was like this..."

From across the table, another young volunteer cut in. "We were too young for '68," said Ingrid Duran, who had flown in from Washington, D.C., to help. "This is our '68."

So it is.