By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in the South Carolina primary and his endorsement by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy fundamentally alter the dynamics of the 2008 Democratic presidential contest.
Only a week ago, Hillary Clinton, with her upset victory in the New Hampshire primary and her solid triumph in the Nevada caucuses, was on a trajectory to close out the nomination, if not in the wave of contests on Feb. 5, then shortly thereafter.
But her campaign underestimated the bitterness that would be created by former President Bill Clinton’s role as a “bad cop” against Obama in South Carolina. This not only solidified the African-American vote for the Illinois senator, but also appears to have pushed down Clinton’s share of the white vote in the final days.
More significantly, Bill Clinton’s campaigning created a backlash among his own loyalists. Online discussion groups involving veterans of the Clinton administration reflected a sharp division in their ranks over the former president’s intervention and the beginning of a defection toward Obama, even among participants who have long held a positive view of Hillary Clinton.
People close to Ted Kennedy say that the former president’s aggressiveness pushed the senator to offer an endorsement he was already inclined to make. He was further encouraged by Caroline Kennedy’s embrace of Obama.
In an interview on Monday, Sen. Kennedy resolutely avoided any criticism of the Clintons. Instead, he chose to reinforce the central claim of Obama’s candidacy. “People are generally together on the issues,” Kennedy said, “so the question comes down to who will be able to inspire” and “galvanize the country to take action.”
Kennedy also urged Obama to stand apart from the negative spirit that has recently infected the campaign. “He’s wiser to be involved and engaged in talking about things that are on people’s minds and are of consequence to them,” Kennedy said, “and to stay out of the sticky wickets and the weeds.”
Over the weekend, loyalists spoke with feeling about what they see as a tragedy that has engulfed Hillary Clinton, whose comeback in New Hampshire after her defeat in Iowa was entirely her own doing. It was the product of an intense work ethic and a moment in which she finally conveyed personal passion about the purpose of her candidacy.
In one town meeting after another, she established her mastery of the issues the next president will confront and was especially effective in conveying her concern for voters who had suffered from economic setbacks.
This bolstered her core theme: that she was more prepared than Obama to be president. And even as her husband’s positive campaigning reminded Democrats of why they liked him, Hillary Clinton came across as her own person.
Bill Clinton’s heavy-handedness in South Carolina undercut her achievement. “She was moving,” said one Clinton veteran now inclined to Obama, “and then he got in the way.” As a result, said an adviser still loyal to Hillary Clinton, her campaign will now need to spend the next week refocusing attention on her own ideas and experience—and encouraging her husband to return to a supporting role.
In truth, Clinton and Obama both face electoral obstacles that would naturally confront any candidate seeking to break barriers of race or gender. The South Carolina exit polls showed each running well behind John Edwards among white men. While Obama won overwhelmingly among whites under 30, he secured only 11 percent of the ballots from whites 65 and older. He won 32 percent among white college graduates, but only 16 percent among whites who did not have college degrees.
But the South Carolina struggle may have shifted the balance of risk in a way that favors Obama. His candidacy has created excitement that Clinton’s has not, and that was palpable at Monday’s Washington rally where several members of the Kennedy family offered him their political blessing. As the Kennedy endorsements underscored, Obama has the potential of mobilizing new energies among African-Americans, and among young and well-educated voters generally. Ted Kennedy’s campaigning could also bolster Obama’s standing among Latinos, who have favored Clinton.
In the meantime, Democrats worry far more than they did even two weeks ago that Hillary Clinton will have great difficulty in escaping the negative aspects of her husband’s legacy.
History teaches that writing off any Clinton is a mistake. But South Carolina has placed large new obstacles in Hillary Clinton’s way. And Barack Obama, stuck just days ago in a nasty tit-for-tat with the Clintons, has been granted a chance to return to the transformational style of campaigning that was always his best path to victory.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group