Salena Zito

The first rule of politics is, “Never count out the Clintons.” Their political conglomerate, Clinton Inc., is like Glenn Close in that bathtub scene in the movie “Fatal Attraction”: It always comes back to life a second or third time.

Polls, momentum and a string of losses tell the story of Hillary Clinton’s troubled candidacy -- but her history, tenacity and character tell another tale.

“Her past points to someone that can dig in. She is a real prizefighter,” says Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist. “Yes, she is down. Certainly, she is not out.”

Good campaigns have a plan, Gerow explains; excellent campaigns can change on the fly. “You will not see her rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” he adds. “When she said she was in it to win, I believed her. I still do.”

Part of the reason Clinton is not winning is that her political narrative has been defined by everyone else. In a large sense, her “brand” is not her own.

When an advertiser or strategist is selling something, whether a product or a candidate, brand is important. Think of it as a little index card in the brain that conjures up one or two images that define what or who a product or person is.

The initial image of Hillary is not that she is not Barack Obama, but is part of Bill Clinton.

“The question for Hillary is, what can she put on that index card in voters’ brains that is going to make a difference for her in the stretch?” wonders media strategist John Brabender, who makes his living branding candidates, mostly Republicans.

The first thing Hillary should do, in Gerow’s mind, is to get out from under the shadow of both Bill Clinton and Obama, and just be herself. “My advice to Hillary would be, if you want to start winning, fight the battle … on your terms and your message.”

Both Gerow and Brabender agree that it is not just her brand that she needs to shake up; it is the expectations game.

Primaries are fueled by two things, momentum and expectations. Right now, the metrics by which Obama is winning put both expectations and momentum on steroids -- a hard battle for any opponent to go against.

In the past, the Clinton campaign masterfully set expectations low for her and high for Obama. When she beat her own artificially low expectations or Obama did not meet the artificially high expectations that the media had adopted, he got no momentum for winning -- or less than he should have.

Think Super Duper Tuesday, when most observers walked away thinking no clear winner resulted.

But Obama’s recent string of wins has defied metrics and expectations. That is a problem for Hillary’s expectations game plan.

Gerow reminds us, however, that Hillary Clinton is tactically smart: “If she can take a breath, adjust, and re-evaluate the circumstances she is facing, Hillary can push back on her losses.

“No one should pine for her right now. This thing is still very much in play.”

Brabender, who faced his own branding challenges in strategizing for Pennsylvania’s former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in 2006, says Clinton faces a real dilemma about going negative.

With limited time left and polling numbers dictating what a candidate is going to do, she may be inclined to try to push Obama’s brand toward the negative.

“If the ads start to become, ‘You know the real Hillary Clinton, but you do not know the real Barack Obama,’ she is taking on a certain amount of risk,” he explains.

That risk is that people may start to turn on the messenger instead of the message.

But Brabender does not see her having much of a choice. “The Clintons are pretty savvy political animals. They know what to do. I would personally not be shocked that she comes up with the conclusion that it is time to take the gloves off.”

Whether it is an attempt to re-brand herself, to cast a negative brand on Obama or to re-mix the expectations, you’d be making a fatal error to call this race a done deal.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.