Clinton’s Firebreak Strategy

Fomer New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took a big risk in his presidential bid. He downplayed his efforts to win in the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wyoming and South Carolina) and bet his entire candidacy on performing well in Florida. This was a bit of disingenuous. He was a big spender in New Hampshire, for example. Nonetheless, he was able to dismiss his early losses and focus attention on the Sunshine State. When his bet failed, he gracefully withdrew from the race, throwing his support to Senator John McCain.

Now Senator Hillary Clinton is following a similar strategy in her contest for the Democratic nomination against Senator Barack Obama. She’s dismissing all the states voting after Super Tuesday and focusing attention on March 4th primaries in Ohio and Texas. Given that Senator Obama has won all eight of the contests since February 5th — and is leading in Hawaii and Wisconsin, the two remaining events before March 4th — this firebreak strategy is really all she can do.

She’s even playing the same disingenuous game as Mayor Giuliani did in New Hampshire. She’s spending significant time and money in Wisconsin, for example. Whether this is in hopes of an upset or just outperforming expectations is unclear. Certainly her campaign is setting expectations as low as possible for that state’s February 19th vote — a strategy which often pays dividends in Wisconsin according to Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A strong showing there would allow Senator Clinton to declare herself the Comeback Kid — yet again.

However, her campaign has made clear Senator Clinton’s real test is Ohio and Texas. In Ohio she’ll be relying on her appeal to union members and blue collar voters hit hard by a tough economy. In Texas she’ll have the added benefit of a large Hispanic presence in the Democratic primary. If she’s stuck with a firebreak strategy, she’s got the right states to do it in.

On the surface, this strategy is remarkably similar to Mayor Giuliani’s. But is her fate likely to be the same?

March 4th is more than two weeks away — eons in this topsy turvy election cycle — which makes predicting results risky at best. Yet, while the strategies are similar, there are significant differences between her situation and the one faced by Mayor Giuliani, however, that indicate it could come together for Senator Clinton:

  • Senator Clinton has won several states. She’s more than a viable candidate, she’s in a virtual tie for the nomination. Mayor Giuliani never got above single digits in the contests before Florida. He did well in 2007 polling, but terribly in 2008 elections. He was finished in Florida before the polls closed in South Carolina.
  • Ohio and Texas divvy up delegates proportionally. Florida was a winner-take-all state for Republicans. So even if she loses, if she can keep it close she’ll be able to deny Senator Obama the delegates he needs to wrap up the nomination.
  • The Clintons have long, established ties to the Democratic political structures in Ohio and Texas. President Bill Clinton took Ohio in both of his elections. Mayor Giuliani roots in Florida were illusory.
  • Senator Clinton faces one opponent. She’ll have no trouble getting her message through to voters. Mayor Giuliani had to compete with several rivals. His message was drowned out in the cacophony.

If Senator Clinton’s strategy fails, if she loses one or both of the March 4th big state primaries, count on her campaign declaring that Pennsylvania was the firebreak state all along. Although if she loses in both states, it would be more appropriate for her to ask Mayor Giuliani for some tips on how to bow out gracefully.

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