Political Capital with John Harwood

Clinton And Obama's "Calm Before The March Storm"

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Here's a change that Hillary Clinton's campaign really can believe in: there's no chance whatsoever that she will lose to Barack Obama this week.

That's because, after a remorseless march of contests that began 48 hours after the New Year dawned, there are no Democratic delegate selection contests. For a candidate on an 11-game losing streak, no less than a slumping basketball team, a break in the action offers a moment to regroup an exhausted team and refocus a strategy that hasn't worked.

The pause before March 4 battles in Ohio and Texas hardly represents an automatic Clinton advantage. Time has typically been Mr. Obama's friend, allowing his charismatic presence, grass roots energy, and cash advantage to overcome her superior familiarity. Mr. Obama's strategists--and most others, too–-see the same pattern emerging as Ohio and Texas polls draw closer.

Your Money, Your Vote

Yet public surveys haven't shown Mr. Obama ahead in either, or in Rhode Island's March 4 primary, for that matter. Clinton aides cling to their decisive Feb. 5 win in California as evidence they can hold the largest battlegrounds. And everyone else is left to wonder: can the primary campaign yield one more momentum-turning surprise?

Clinton adviser Harold Ickes says "the hiatus is giving us a chance to make deeper penetration with our voter contact." In Ohio, that means more time to fortify her blue-collar defenses in Akron and Toledo against onrushing Obama forces--African Americans, upscale liberals and, lately, working class men--in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. In Texas, it means working the Rio Grande Valley to maximize her margins among Hispanics.

Obama aides find reason for optimism while working from behind in Ohio and Texas. With 20 offices open in each state, says Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand, the campaign can spend extra time leveraging their organizing advantages through phone banks and door to door canvassing in addition to an edge in TV ads.

But two weeks as the underdog on the brink of elimination could cast Mrs. Clinton in a more sympathetic light. And the absence of an intervening contest before their March 4 showdown represents an x-factor for the hot candidate.

As Obama strategist David Axelrod observed, "I'd be lying if I told you we won't miss February."

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