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Joan Vennochi

The recurring case of Clinton Fatigue

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
May 8, 2008

EVERY TIME Barack Obama's pastor got him in trouble, Hillary Clinton bailed him out.

After victory in Ohio, she invented the story of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia. That reminded voters of the Clinton tendency to exaggerate or lie when necessary.

After victory in Pennsylvania, she embraced the idea of a gas tax holiday. That reminded voters of the Clinton tendency to pander.

In each case, she helped Obama change the focus from his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the country's relationship with the Clintons. She squandered momentum from impressive victories by bringing back Clinton Fatigue.

Mathematically, the structure of the Democratic primary race hasn't changed since March. The Clinton campaign was unprepared for the electoral outcome after the New Hampshire primary. Obama's Super Tuesday victories and a string of successes afterward put him ahead in the delegate count and popular vote. He was also helped when his supporters blocked revotes in Michigan and Florida, taking 284 delegates and more than 2 million popular votes off the table. Superdelegates were starting to move toward Obama.

But the psychology was shifting, even if only slightly, as Clinton won several big states by carving out the old Reagan Democrat constituency. She showed admirable toughness, building a connection with Democratic white male voters, the key swing bloc of the primaries.

At the same time, the controversy over Obama's former pastor raised concerns about his vulnerability to Republican attack during a general election. He first addressed them during a much-applauded speech on race in Philadelphia. But he walked a line in that speech, denouncing Wright's words but refusing to renounce their relationship.

The Wright controversy quieted down after Clinton generated controversy of her own with a false recollection about landing in Bosnia under sniper attack. She won the battle of Pennsylvania by 10 points, even though Obama outspent her 3-to-1, drew huge adoring crowds, and carried a flood of newly registered voters. But the Bosnia fabrication hurt her in the overall political war with Obama, because it once again exposed Clinton's biggest weakness - being part of a husband and wife team with honesty problems.

Wright's recent television appearance and speeches dragged Obama back into the political firestorm. It forced the candidate to once again address the reverend's more controversial statements. This time Obama broke with Wright, to his political advantage. Just as voters were getting tired of the endless loops of Wright's pontificating, Clinton decided to join with John McCain and back a gas tax holiday. It came across as transparent pandering, and Obama was able to capitalize on that.

Nearly 7 in 10 Indiana voters and 6 in 10 North Carolinians said the economy was the most important issue. But Clinton's gas tax proposal did not move votes to her side.

Clinton helped Obama, but he also helped himself. He showed he could weather the Wright controversy, at least enough to satisfy Democratic primary voters. He was straightforward under tough questioning from Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press." In contrast, Clinton seemed disingenuous when asked to justify her gas tax proposal on ABC's "This week with George Stephanopoulos."

It's disappointing, because she was earning grudging respect, if not an obvious path to the nomination. She rediscovered the voice that first surfaced in New Hampshire, before it was overwhelmed by Bill Clinton's voice in South Carolina. She displayed resilience in recent weeks, rapport with ordinary voters, and even a sense of humor. Clinton was the candidate who could down a beer and a shot, while Obama was tagged as an elitist. But Hillary Clinton's transformation to woman of the people was not enough to overcome her weaknesses and Obama's strengths.

In Indiana and North Carolina, Obama was overwhelmingly cited in exit polls as the candidate who can bring about change. A big part of the change voters desire may be simply to elect someone whose last name isn't Bush or Clinton.

Clinton Fatigue always stood between Hillary Clinton and a return to the White House. Every time Obama gave her an opportunity to overcome it, she stoked it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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