Not Quite Road Kill: Hillary Wins 'What Was Lost Before'

Suzanne Fields

4/25/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Hillary Clinton has been left for dead by most of the pundits, many of whom more or less openly yearn for consummation of their passionate love affair with Barack Obama. These pundits look to each other for constant reassurance. They didn't get it Tuesday night in Pennsylvania.

Hillary may indeed be doomed, but her question, asked even before her remarkable Pennsylvania victory, haunts Democrats from coast to coast: "Why can't he close the deal? Why can't he win a state like this?" Why not, indeed. The answer, if and when the wise men come up with one, will likely be too late to help Bill Clinton's first lady.

Barack Obama is swimming in cash, and though the Hillary campaign insisted that more than 2 million dollars came rushing into headquarters in the wake of her Tuesday triumph, that's a pittance compared to the money on Obama's hand for the final sprint toward the convention. But winning stops a lot of arguments, and the Pennsylvania result gives Hillary an enormous boost.

The exit polls, pored over by the pundits, analysts and consultants with the fervor of a scrapple inspector at the butcher shop, reveal ominous weaknesses in the Obama appeal, and offer several prospective answers to Hillary's question. Obama is still a man of considerable mystery to many if not most women, to white men, Catholics (code for the Reagan Democrats), evangelicals -- even Jews, who rarely question the bona fides of anyone on the Democratic line. Hillary went over the top with "reassuring" words for Jews on the morning of the primary. If Iran should attack Israel when she is president, "we would be able to totally obliterate them." This is called making a lot of unnecessary noise while carrying the biggest stick.

Sen. Obama's withdrawing from the debate in North Carolina, which effectively kills any further prospect of close questioning before the next vote May 6, raises alarms. His skin is thinner than we thought, and it's easy to get under it. Over the next fortnight we can expect Hillary to say out loud that Sen. Obama, who turned petulant when he was pressed about certain pals in his Chicago past in that last Democratic debate in Philadelphia, is scared to come out in the open. Until now he has prospered behind a wall of adoring media coverage, speaking in slogans and shibboleths ("change we can believe in") that only deepen the mystery. Now that same media, a school of sharks after all, will be eager to rally if that red stuff is a little blood in the water.

The primary reinforced the caution offered by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. "You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate." This is something that terrifies insiders in both the Obama and Clinton camps, but it's something you're not supposed to say. The results of the first primary after the extensive coverage of the racist jeremiad of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Obama's "spiritual mentor," validate the governor's warning.

Sen. Obama clearly doesn't like questions that make him uncomfortable. When a reporter interrupted his waffle at Gilder's Diner in Scranton to ask what he thought of Jimmy Carter's bizarre overtures to Hamas, the candidate demurred: "Why can't I just eat my waffle?" Asked again, he repeated his plaintive wish to be alone with his waffle. "Waffle" as a verb means "to hold back, to falter, to be unsure or weak." Was the senator waffling? (The hungry guy never did finish his breakfast, but someone whisked the plate away and put it up for sale on eBay.)

The math certainly isn't kind to Hillary. There aren't enough primaries left to fish for enough elected delegates, not even counting Florida and Michigan, which the national party is determined not to do. But the superdelegates, who, as elected officials, are supersensitive to sudden shifts in the wind, have it within their power to choose between Hillary and Obama in Denver. Superdelegates were, after all, created to overcome the proportionate rules that enable a winner to earn fewer delegates than a popular vote suggests (s)he deserved.

In Hillary Rodham's famous commencement speech at Wellesley nearly four decades ago, she urged the Class of '69 to restore the meaning of such simple words as "integrity and trust." The campaign of '08 has thrown these words back at her. In her Wellesley speech she paraphrased a theme from the poem "East Coker" by T.S. Eliot: "There's only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what was lost before." Words to survive by.