COMMENT / UNITED STATES : RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
Clinton must stay up late to overcome Obama
By MARGARET CARLSON
I saw how Senator Hillary Clinton could win the Democratic nomination the day before the Iowa vote. That was a little late for her to actually win the caucuses, but late is better than never. It turns out that Mrs Clinton is at her best when she's dead tired. Mrs Clinton, worn down to a nub, too beat to raise her eyebrows like Lucille Ball while pointing at someone in the crowd as if she has just spotted a long-lost friend from grade school. Mrs Clinton when her voice _ which so easily grates she didn't speak in her last 30-second ad _ was weary so that even her laundry lists of programmes sounded gentler and kinder.
The Clinton campaign knew something was terribly wrong a few weeks ago when Senator Barack Obama's surge began. Mark Penn's strategy to run a former first lady as an incumbent was proving fruitful in national polls. Funny thing was that the folks in Iowa didn't seem to be yearning for a third Clinton term, hers if not his.
It turned out Democrats didn't see Hillary Clinton as inevitable as her campaign gurus did, that she was owed the office, that she should get credit for all the good parts of her husband's administration (Hillary balanced the budget and reformed welfare) and none of the bad (Bill blew health care and got himself impeached) _ and be rewarded for it.
Where voters were as Clinton joked after the State Fair ''opening up your mouth, check out your teeth as if you're a horse'', some people didn't like aspects of the Clinton era _ triangulating on issues or trimming around the edges as she did in the debates where she couldn't give a yes or no answer. Her negatives weren't just high, they were really negative. She tried bolting ''change'' on to her slogan ''strength and experience'', and then embarked on a likeability tour aided by the presence of her likeable mother and daughter on the campaign trail. One of her biggest ad buys showed Hillary saying how proud she was to pass along to her daughter the lessons her mother taught about standing up for those who can't do it on their own. She doesn't say how Chelsea stands up for others at the hedge fund where she works, but never mind.
A poll early in the Clinton administration showed that many folks didn't even know Hillary was a mother. That's when they gave People magazine an exclusive photo shoot of her horsing around with Chelsea in a hammock. She still needs to hammer home the point. It wasn't until the end that the real Hillary _ the one her friends tell us exists _ appeared. Bone-tired, knowing she was slipping, she became more like her husband, who never performed as well when he was ahead as when he was down. In one of her last events in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she blabbed about many of the same old things but did so from some place deep inside her sleep-deprived self.
Her stale lines came off. She remarked how impossible it was for two oil-patch guys to get us to energy independence and revealed how for the first couple of years of George W Bush's administration she ''yelled at the television set''. She went on: ''You couldn't make this stuff up! The vice president shoots someone?''
The voice too hoarse and tired to fake empathy let it come through when she repeated the story of the army captain who graduated from West Point but needed his wife to tell him where and when to go after he received a severe head injury. ''Where do I go to get my brain back?'' she said he asked her.
Finally, Mrs Clinton was plaintive, expressive, warm, someone you would want to pull up a chair with and listen to. We knew she had a brain. Fatigue forced her guard down so that we could see she has a heart.
Listening to Sen Obama's victory speech, you see how very tired Mrs Clinton will have to be to move people as he does. There are cliches in his speeches but the delivery is something we haven't seen since John F Kennedy. ''They said this day would never come,'' Sen Obama said. ''Our sights were set too high. On this January night, at this defining moment, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do'' _ to get people out of their warm houses on a cold night in historic numbers to vote for him. Every once in a while when listening to Sen Obama, I got a lump in my throat. I was less embarrassed by my reaction when two weeks ago I read a column by the Washington Post's David Broder, who wrote about the jolt of pure electric energy at the end of an Obama speech: ''Tears stain some cheeks'' and ''people look a little thunderstruck''.
People are interesting in their moments of loss and Mrs Clinton was full of grace, especially in contrast to former Senator John Edwards, who never congratulated the winner at all.
Her grace doesn't mean she concedes anything. Conventional wisdom was that if Sen Obama lost last Thursday, he would be history, but not Mrs Clinton. Bob Dole joked when the Clintons hung around on Inauguration Day, long after tradition would have Elvis leave the building, that it was going to ''take a SWAT team to get them out of town''. Mrs Elvis is in the race to stay. But she'll have to be really exhausted to beat Sen Obama.
The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.