"I guess this is how the West was won," Hillary Clinton exulted at her victory rally in Las Vegas after the Democratic caucuses.
Well, not exactly, ma'am. Yet how the Clintons, by deftly playing the race and gender cards, turned back the greatest single challenge to a Clinton Restoration will be studied for a long time to come.
It began in Iowa, where Barack Obama, the first African-American crossover candidate with broad appeal to all racial and ethnic groups, was on fire in a state that was overwhelmingly white.
Came then Billy Shaheen, the Clinton New Hampshire co-chair, to suggest that, were Barack to be nominated, Republicans would ask when he had stopped using drugs and whether he ever bought or sold drugs. Mark Penn of the Clinton campaign denied on MSNBC's "Hardball" that his team was raising the "cocaine issue."
Mission accomplished, Shaheen dutifully resigned. Bill Clinton drove the point home, telling an interviewer that to nominate Obama would be a "roll of the dice."
Nevertheless, Barack won Iowa going away and stormed into New Hampshire for what pundits predicted would be a defeat for Hillary so crushing it would be the final chapter of the Clinton era.
Then Bill Clinton told a Dartmouth audience that Obama's claim to being consistently antiwar was a "fairy tale."
That, plus the media pile-on, Barack's snide dismissal of her in the debate -- "You're popular enough, Hillary" -- and her choked-up moment hours before voting began caused the women of New Hampshire to rally in sympathy. Obama's lead, estimated by some at 15 points, vanished, and Hillary won what became one of the great upsets in New Hampshire history.
Stunned and stung, Barack's African-American backers then rushed into the baited trap. One after another, they headed for the TV cameras to charge that the Clintons had fought dirty, forcing voters to focus on the race and gender of the candidates rather than on their records, ideas and issues.
When Hillary said sweetly that while Dr. Martin Luther King was the inspirational leader of the civil rights revolution, LBJ was the indispensable leader who had enacted the laws, King, martyr-hero of black America, became an issue.
As the raillery grew acrimonious and the rage among Barack's backers rose, his black support solidified, but his white support, recoiling from race politics, peeled away. And the sisterhood rallied to Hillary.
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