Showdown in Austen

As the Democratic nomination slips further and further from her grasp, Hillary Clinton needs to change the dynamic in her contest with Barack Obama. Tonight’s debate in Austin is one of her last chances to achieve such a change. And, in the manner of political campaigns since time immemorial, this means she is going negative. "One of us is ready to be commander-in-chief," she told a rally in New York. "Let’s get real." This line of attack is fraught with danger for the former First Lady. In the first place, going negative does not appear to have helped her in Wisconsin where she was trounced by 17 points on Tuesday. Democratic primary voters seem to like both candidates and they do not want to see this get nasty. Neither do party elders from whom the ranks of super-delegates are drawn. The greater risk has to do with the dismissive flavor of the words "Let’s get real," words she repeated for effect several times. They are the kind of thing someone who feels entitled (and robbed) by an upstart says, and that sense of entitlement is one of the least appealing characteristics of Hillary’s campaign. The other problem is the way such dismissiveness is heard by others. After Bill Clinton used the phrase "fairy tale" to describe Obama’s position on the Iraq War, Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley told NPR that when he heard Clinton say those words, the phrase that came to mind was "uppity n*****." Criticizing Obama is one thing, but dismissing him is another. Tonight, at the debate, Clinton needs to attack Obama without stepping over any of these lines. Barack, on the other hand, knows that all eyes will be on him. He must avoid any kind of "gotcha" moment. I am sure he is being briefed on the names of all the potential prime ministers in Pakistan, the number of active-duty military, and which nations have recognized Kosovar independence and which have not. And, he must appear calm and cool in the face of the Clinton attacks, defending himself without being defensive. It will be curious to see how many viewers watch tonight’s debate. At the Los Angeles debate before Super Tuesday, 8 million people watched and Hillary gave another one of her commanding performances and Barack held his own. Indeed, her performance allowed her to reassure her voters in Super Tuesday states after she had been clobbered in South Carolina. The result: she and Barack essentially tied on Super Tuesday. In Texas and Ohio, Hillary needs more than a tie. She needs a knockout punch. She has to win and win big. So, a sound performance tonight will not do. She has to rough Obama up and hope that he makes a mistake. Too much aggression will backfire and not enough results in the kind of tie that doesn’t help her. But Hillary looks best in a debate and she, not her advisers, nor her husband, will have her own destiny in her hands when she takes the stage in Austin tonight. Michael Sean Winters
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