A big day on the presidential campaign trail

A showdown in Florida for Republicans and the endorsement by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy could be tipping points. Has Bill Clinton killed his wife's chance to be president?
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A showdown in Florida for Republicans and the endorsement by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy could be tipping points. Has Bill Clinton killed his wife's chance to be president?

Editor's note: Seattle-based national political writer Ted Van Dyk is on a book tour and is occasionally reporting from the road on the presidential campaign.

I am presently in Arizona, where TV commercials for both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are on the air in advance of that state's Feb. 5 piece of the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. Gov. Janet Napolitano, who had endorsed Obama, is featured in his commercials. Nothing presently is on the air for former Sen. John Edwards. No winner is apparent, although Clinton has had strong Latino support in the state and was thought the frontrunner – at least until Sen. Ted Kennedy's active involvement for Obama began yesterday. (More on that below.)

The presidential nominating contests overshadowed last night's State of the Union speech by President Bush, the last of his presidency, and made it seem almost a sideshow.

Today's Florida Republican presidential primary is a winner-take-all event which will give the winner a huge injection of fresh money and momentum going into Super Tuesday. With the stakes so high, both Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have been trading increasingly angry blows. McCain has derided what he sees as Romney's relative inexperience on national security issues; Romney has focused on McCain's past statements conceding his own inexperience on economic and financial issues. McCain, additionally, has raised Romney's ire by characterizing him as a manager and bureaucrat – the kind who can be hired by leaders (as McCain characterizes himself).

Whatever happens today in Florida, McCain and Romney will have the political support and money to proceed competitively through Super Tuesday. Romney has his own fortune. Although McCain minimizes his own resources, his wife has almost as much money as Romney. The Hensley family, McCain's in-laws and prosperous Arizona booze distributors, have largely financed his political career. His wife, now head of the family enterprises, is unlikely to cut off his money supply this near the prize.

Barring an incredible surprise, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be down for the count tonight. He and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are running well behind Romney and McCain and contesting for third and fourth places.

The most important event of the past two days is saved for last: the endorsement of Obama yesterday by Sen. Ted Kennedy, his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and his niece, Caroline Kennedy. Ted Kennedy not only gave a hard-hitting endorsement speech for Obama but addressed head-on the principal charges Sen. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have been making against Obama. He will now hit the road to campaign among Latino, black, and labor voters in key Feb. 5 states. Reportedly, he will visit Idaho on Saturday.

Kennedy was not expected to make any endorsement in the nominating campaign, serving as he does with both Obama and Clinton (and as he once did with Edwards). It came about because of his anger at the Clintons' tactics against Obama in South Carolina last week. Bill Clinton played the race card heavily and clumsily against Obama. Not only Kennedy but a large number of national Democratic leaders were enraged by the tactic. Kennedy called Bill Clinton directly to warn him against such tactics. Hillary's response, when questioned about her husband's statements, was to dismisss them as the enthusiastic defenses of a loving husband.

When Clinton persisted, Kennedy – the unchallenged liberal leader in the Senate and country – decided to endorse and actively campaign for Obama.

An interesting sidebar: When Obama won in South Carolina, it was Bill rather than Hillary Clinton who responded with a concession statement. When Kennedy decided to endorse Obama, he informed Bill rather than Hillary Clinton. This reflects a perception, widely held, that Bill rather than Hillary Clinton really is calling Hillary's shots and that, if elected, he would be trying to do so in a Hillary White House.

There are transforming, determining moments in politics. If Obama now picks up momentum, built on the active support of Kennedy and of key liberal constituencies, and marches to a broad victory on Feb. 5, it will be directly traceable to the moment when the Clintons went over the top in their attacks on Obama – and, in particular, to Bill Clinton's references to race.

Obama may not make a Feb. 5 breakout. But if he does, that will be the reason. Hillary still has time for damage repair, especially if Bill is banished to the provinces. National and key-state polls, at this moment, still show Hillary running strongly. Momentum, however, is now running with Obama.

I personally support Obama and believe he offers both the Democratic Party and country a fresh chance to address issues that have been stalled by political polarization. But I feel sympathy for Hillary Clinton, a tough-minded, intelligent and capable woman with potential for strong leadership. After having betrayed her in their personal lives, Bill Clinton now has betrayed her politically with his undisciplined, low-road exhibitionism during the recent campaign period. The Clintons, long ago, linked themselves inextricably. It is Hillary now who is trapped by the link.

Even if she falls short in this year's campaign, Hillary Clinton surely will continue to be a force in the Senate and in national politics and, who knows, may in time emerge all stronger for what she is now experiencing. But right now, she is wounded and damaged politically.

Tune in tonight for the Florida results. Romney and McCain are running head to head. The winner will emerge a favorite for his party's nomination.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.