The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, the Democrat frontrunner, is facing a wave of defections by supporters to Barack Obama, as an aura of “inevitability” about her nomination fades.
With Oprah Winfrey, the talk show host and Obama enthusiast, challenging former president Bill Clinton for star power on the campaign trail, the coronation of Hillary has been put on hold.
A few days ago, Helen Quarles peeled off the Hillary for President bumper stickers from her car and replaced them with Obama ’08.
“I didn’t think anybody could turn me away from Hillary,” said Quarles, who worked as a volunteer for Clinton’s first Senate election campaign in New York. “I liked her and was very fond of Bill.”
Quarles now lives in South Carolina, which holds its primary election next month. “In the South, a lot of people don’t like Hillary, so I felt it was up to me to turn things around for her. I really wanted her to win, but there’s something about Obama,” she said. “To me, he is the one who is going to make a difference.”
Quarles, 69, has a “golden” centre row ticket to see Winfrey in action with Obama and his wife Michelle today at the University of South Carolina’s 80,000-seat football stadium.
“I think Oprah can change anybody’s mind. I really do. She can draw people in and get them to listen to him,” Quarles said.
The decisive factor for her was hearing Michelle Obama talk on television recently about her husband’s family background and values: “I didn’t really know who Obama was. She touched my heart.”
Former “Friends of Bill”, who served in the White House in 1990s but defected early on to Obama’s campaign, are not surprised by the drift away from Hillary.
Betsy Myers, a White House adviser on women’s issues - and sister of Dee-Dee Myers, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary - is now chief operating officer for Obama’s campaign and responsible for much of its organ-isational prowess.
Myers worked with Clinton when she was first lady. “Politics are about relationships, so it was not an easy choice, but I was really looking for a new generation of leadership skills, away from the old control and command model,” she said.
“For me, it wasn’t a vote against Hillary Clinton but a vote for Barack. He is very authentic and comfortable in his own skin and has a history of working across the aisles for the common good . . . He would never utter the words ‘right-wing conspiracy’ or even think like that,” Myers said, referring to Hillary Clinton’s swipe at her husband’s opponents during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
William Daley, Bill Clinton’s former secretary of commerce, is another prominent Obama backer, with strong roots in Chicago, the candidate’s home town.
He is the son of the late Richard J Daley, Chicago’s one-time mayor, and the brother of its present mayor, Richard M Daley.
“He’s an extremely talented young fellow, who I have watched grow. He can strongly convey to the world that there is a different generation and a different style about America,” William Daley said.
“I’ve known the president and Mrs Clinton for a long time and have enormous respect for them, but we’re still fresh in a new century. Among the American people there is a bit of a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton issue.”
Daley - in common with a discreet handful of “Friends of Bill” who are backing Hillary’s presidential bid - feels she would be better suited to the job of Senate majority leader. “It would be perfect for her,” he said. “She would be a great person defending the Democrats and doing the back and forth on talk shows.”
Clinton’s campaign staff - normally self-assured - began to wobble last week as the polls narrowed. A po-faced press release accusing Obama of wanting to be president since kindergarten was mocked and later explained away by Mark Penn, Clinton’s top strategist, as a joke.
Clinton herself came under fire for claiming that the “fun part” of the campaign had started - code for going negative on her rival. In South Carolina, the latest poll shows Obama moving into first place over Clinton by 26% to 24%. In the summer Clinton held a 15-point lead.
In Iowa, Obama moved into the lead in two polls last week, although the race remains too close to call. In New Hampshire, Clinton’s formerly substantial lead over Obama has dropped to single digits.
“In both Iowa and New Hampshire, people don’t like to be told who is going to win,” Myers said. “They take their job very seriously and like to make up their own mind.”
Myers is already spending half her week in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on January 8, five days after the Iowa caucus. Victory in those two states is essential to build momentum for Obama, who remains the underdog.
Judie Reever, a state representative in New Hampshire, believes Clinton is looking vulnerable for the first time.
“I was initially very excited that we were going to have a woman running for president. I met Hillary when Bill Clinton was running for office. She was wonderful and gracious – if people said nasty things about her, I’d say, ‘That’s not my experience’. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t support her.
“All of sudden, I got the sense that she was who the Republicans would like to be the candidate. There’s a love-hate relationship with her and when all is said and done, we’d be a divided nation even if she won - and I’m not sure she would. Every time I heard Obama speak, I kept saying, ‘Yes!’, and I suddenly realised he was the person I was going to support.”
Clinton still leads Obama by 18 points in a national poll of polls and is significantly ahead in big states such as Florida and California.
Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s former adviser, maintains that she could lose the first primaries and still go on to win, once the focus shifts to her rival’s weakness.
“Democrats are going to be reluctant to nominate someone they know so little about as Obama and will wonder if the nation is ready for an African-American candidate (it is) or for a man who has been senator for 104 weeks before running for president (it’s not),” he wrote.
Too many defectors will leave Clinton’s campaign in tatters, but if the flow can be reversed, she could reemerge as the “comeback girl”.