Momentum won, momentum lost

By March 5, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 5 (UPI) —¬†Ohio was on my mind as I began my day with my laptop being stolen between Brussels and Amsterdam. It is a columnist’s worst nightmare. One second of lapsed concentration and you are in knee-deep.

I placed a call to Mustafa Kamal Kazi, the respected Pakistani diplomat. He was making a pit stop in the Netherlands. I wanted an update about things in his world. His luggage was lost. We commiserated. Kazi asked me about the U.S. presidential primaries Tuesday in Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont.

I said, “Mustafa, I have no clue. I could use a crystal ball.” He laughed. “Good luck, and see you Friday.”

As I boarded my flight to Columbus from Schiphol Airport, I remembered the dinner Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland hosted for the kickoff of Global Panel America in late October 2007. The evening struck an international theme with ranking guests from Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia. But Europeans are very interested in the U.S. presidential campaign as well. At one point Strickland excused himself. “I am very sorry, I must take a phone call.”

It turned out that Sen. Hillary Clinton was on the other end of the line. On that evening, Strickland offered to endorse her candidacy. And as Clinton acknowledged in her victory speech tonight from the Columbus Athenaeum, the governor’s support was supremely important.

“Tonight is a victory for all those who have been counted out, but not knocked out. For all those who have stumbled, but did not fall,” Clinton began her speech in the crowded hall. “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. In recent history no candidate has won the White House without winning the Ohio primary.” Strickland was at her side. And she acknowledged him warmly.

Clinton found her stride in Ohio. She campaigned tenaciously on the stump. Sen. Barack Obama gave Clinton an opening to attack him on the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement when he became embroiled in a tussle caused by one of his leading staffers who had met with Canadian diplomats and implied Obama’s NAFTA critique on the stump was “just politics.” Clinton also honed in on being prepared from day one.

Four days before the primary, the Clinton campaign ran an ad called “Children” in Texas and Ohio. “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep,” a grim-voiced announcer intones over footage of angelic kids in their beds. “But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing,” the menacing voiceover continues. “Your vote will decide who answers that call,” the announcer says. “Who do you want answering the phone?” Clinton won over 65 percent of the vote of those who decided who to support in the last three days.

If Clinton was fine-tuning her campaign, she was also fine-tuning her message to use against Obama and Sen. John McCain, who captured the Republican nomination on Tuesday with his win in Texas. Like the controversial ad, she staked her ground on security, leadership and being prepared. “When the phone rings at 3 a.m., there is no time for on-the-job training,” she said.

She continued, “We will make ideas into solutions, promises into action and hope into reality,” a clear swipe at Obama. On the way to victory she reclaimed her base of women, rural voters and blue-collar workers who she had lost since Super Tuesday in February. Clinton also showed significant gains among white men. Many attribute this to the “3 a.m.” ad.

Obama had gained serious momentum in Texas and Ohio over the last weeks — he was after all more than 20 percentage points down just a few months ago in both states. While he narrowed the margin, it was not enough as Clinton won both Ohio, comfortably, and Texas by a very slim margin. She also won Rhode Island. Obama won Vermont.

Obama’s speech from Texas was prior to his knowing he had lost there. He had many more policy notes than his past speeches. “I am accused of being eloquent, but empty; giving speeches, but no solutions, but this is not the case” as he went into a series of policy issues. He also talked leadership. “Strong countries and strong leaders are not afraid to talk directly to their enemies — that was the case with Reagan and Kennedy.” He added, “A president knows when to send soldiers into the battle, and what battlefield they will fight on.” Obama covered his flank as he moved to speak in more detail about his economic policy, foreign policy and security affairs. When Obama did go on the offensive, it was mostly against McCain. But several times he linked Clinton and McCain by name. Clinton mostly critiqued her Democratic opponent.

In his acceptance speech, McCain stressed his credentials as commander in chief and spoke strongly of free trade. These will clearly be his main themes. He used the word “honor” and “country” many times. One should not forget that McCain was down and out six months ago and was never expected to secure the nomination this early. McCain’s victory was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s last stand as he withdrew from the Republican presidential contest.

Clinton succeeded in making people take a second look at Obama.

Ohio and Texas were supposed to seal the deal for the Democratic Party. We now know it is even further from over.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and a vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)