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Hillary Clinton Taking A Page From The George Bush Playbook

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton stands behind no Democratic presidential candidate in her scorn for George W. Bush, but that isn’t stopping her from implementing Mr. Bush’s 2000 political strategy against John McCain. In one notable consequence of the front-loaded 2008 political calendar, she used it before the New Hampshire primary, not after.

Recall that in 2000, John McCain smashed Mr. Bush in New Hampshire by dominating the votes of independents. But Mr. Bush wore down Mr. McCain in subsequent contests with a two-pronged strategy. He co-opted the Arizona senator’s “reform” mantra by calling himself the reformer who would actually produce results, and sharply criticized Mr. McCain in ways that deepened the doubts of Republican regulars. It worked, especially well in contests limited to GOP voters.

After her Iowa defeat, Mrs. Clinton adopted precisely the same approach against Barack Obama in New Hampshire. She co-opted Mr. Obama’s “change” theme but argued that she could act to produce it, while her less-experienced rival could only talk. She and her husband, former President Clinton, bluntly attacked Mr. Obama for having waffled on issues.

The strategy succeeded. The former First Lady won Democrats by a robust 45 percent to 34 perent margin, which overcome the Illinois senator’s twelve percentage-point margin among the smaller bloc of independent voters. Team Clinton will attempt to emulate that formula in the long march through Feb. 5, just as Mr. Bush did eight years ago.

The peculiar contours of 2008 lend Mr. Obama one critical advantage in states beyond New Hampshire that Mr. McCain didn’t enjoy: support from a core Democratic constituency that has played virtually no role in the first two contests.

Democrats partisans in New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white. In upcoming battles in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri, African-Americans represent a much higher proportion of the primary electorate.

With the help of her ex-president husband, Hillary Clinton will fight for her share of that vote. But a viable Obama campaign can anticipate gaining the upper hand. They may benefit in that effort by calling attention to the Clinton campaign’s attacks on the first African-American candidate with a plausible path to the White House.

That “very negative campaign…will surely come back to haunt them down the road,” predicts Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid.

The ongoing role of independents represents another key variable. About half the Democratic contests on Feb. 5 allow self-styled independents to participate. Those venues bode well for Mr. Obama provided he can improve his standing among Democratic partisans. Among those limited to self-described Democrats: Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Delaware, Oklahoma, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas and New York.

The biggest Feb. 5 prize, California, lies somewhere in the murky middle. California’s Secretary of State describes its process as a “modified closed primary”. Those not identifying themselves with the Democratic Party may vote in the Democratic primary--but only if they request a Democratic ballot. Otherwise, independents will simply be handed a ballot containing only non-partisan races.

Thus harvesting independent support there poses a communications challenge for the Obama campaign in coaching potential supporters before they reach polling places. “They’ve begun it already,” observes California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. “That’s one area where new technology can have a big impact."

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.