Twenty-nine innings of firewall?

How Clinton could lose in New Hampshire and still win it all.

By Tim Grieve

Published January 7, 2008 2:12PM (EST)

For all the grief Rudy Giuliani has taken for his "29-inning strategy," it seems that he isn't alone. With New Hampshire not looking much like the firewall Hillary Clinton hoped it would be -- Barack Obama is up by an average of nearly five percentage points in the five most recent New Hampshire polls -- her campaign may soon find itself playing a Giuliani-esque wait-and-hope game.

Could it work? Blogger Chris Bowers thinks so. While back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would provide Obama with a massive amount of momentum, they don't offer much in terms of delegates. Obama picked up 16 delegates in Iowa, just one more than Clinton did, and there are only 22 more up for grabs in the New Hampshire primary. Even if Obama won every won of those -- he won't -- Clinton would still enjoy a substantial delegate lead over him because she has the support of so many of the Democratic Party's superdelegates, elected officials and other party insiders who choose for themselves how to vote at the party's convention.

Yes, the superdelegate breakdown could tilt toward Obama if he comes out of New Hampshire looking like the candidate to beat. But no matter what happens in New Hampshire, Democratic voters in Michigan will deliver a Cadillac full of delegates for Clinton on Jan. 15. Neither Obama nor John Edwards nor Bill Richardson is on the ballot in Michigan -- all three withdrew after the state bucked the DNC and moved up its primary -- leaving virtually all of the state's 128 delegates to Clinton. So far, the DNC is saying publicly that it won't seat Michigan's delegates at the convention. Bowers says there's no way the DNC won't cave on that one. If he's right about that, Clinton will enjoy a fairly massive delegate advantage by the time Florida votes on Jan. 29, and she still enjoys a huge lead in the polls there.

Then there's Feb. 5, or Super-Duper Tuesday, where the slate of states in play currently favors Clinton. As Bowers notes, Clinton now has "oversized leads" in Arkansas, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. She also holds a big lead in California. If those leads hold -- and if the DNC seats the delegates from Michigan and Florida -- Clinton comes out on top no matter what happens anywhere else. Bowers does the math: "Collectively, Clinton's advantage in Super Delegates, Michigan, and February 5th home states provides her with roughly a 500 delegate advantage on Obama. If she were to also win Florida and California, which combine for 555 pledged delegates, it would be impossible for Obama to be ahead on delegates after February 5th. He could win every other state between now and February 6th, and never make up that sort of delegate deficit."

The key caveat: If Obama looks like a winner after New Hampshire and then again in South Carolina, the undecided superdelegates as well as the voters in all those states where Clinton leads now could move hard away from her. Politics isn't exactly like baseball, and sometimes it's not just about the math. Yes, you can go down by a few runs in the first inning and make them up again in the ninth -- or even in the 29th -- but only if your team hasn't lost heart and stopped swinging by the time you get there.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton War Room