Tuesday night was not a good one for Hillary Clinton. First, as expected, she lost the Democratic primary in Wisconsin. Then, midway through a speech her campaign said would be a preview of a "major address" she'll deliver Wednesday morning in New York, rival Barack Obama broke with traditional campaign etiquette and began his own remarks. And to add insult to injury, the networks cut away from Clinton, before she had finished, in order to present Obama's speech.
Neither candidate was in Wisconsin when Obama's victory was announced. Instead, both had moved on to states that will vote March 4, the next contest date -- Clinton was in Ohio, while Obama was in Texas.
Clinton's speech touched on what's becoming a familiar theme for her campaign: Action is more important than words, and in her formulation, it's clear that she's implying Obama is only about words. "Tonight I want to talk to you about the choice you have in this election and why that choice matters. It is about picking a president who relies not just on words, but on work, on hard work to get America back to work," Clinton said. "You know, when I think about what we're really comparing in this election, you know, we can't just have speeches. We've got to have solutions ... We've got to get America back in the solutions business, because while words matter, the best words in the world aren't enough unless you match them with action."
Obama's speech seemed designed to counter such charges. His previous election night remarks have largely been kept short, sweet and dominated by his usual messages about hope and change. Tuesday night was an entirely different story. His speech lasted what Fox News' Brit Hume counted as 45 minutes; it was, Hume said, the longest election night speech of this presidential campaign thus far. And it was heavy on issue positions. Obama spoke, for example, about the war in Iraq, foreign policy generally, healthcare, education, lobbyists, the economy, trade, taxes, the minimum wage, energy, Darfur and immigration.
But what the speech had in discussion of issues, it was noticeably lacking in the energy that has been a hallmark of Obama's previous election night speeches. Several audience members (we counted at least four, and that was without effort at an accurate tally) sitting behind him, visible to television cameras, started speaking on cellphones. Many looked bored. Actually, at times, even Obama looked bored, unenthusiastic about what he was saying.
Watching the speech, one got the feeling that it didn't matter if the audience fell asleep, or even if the candidate himself did. What seemed to matter to the campaign was getting across a response to attacks from Clinton and John McCain, sending a message that Obama is about more than just his usual speeches. We'll see over the coming weeks whether the tactic was successful.