Hillary Clinton's top aides have laid out a challenge, with their expectations-setting memo and a follow-up conference call: If Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee, he shouldn't lose any more states. Ever.
"If you are acting like the nominee -- if you are, essentially, declaring the race over -- you ought to be able to win the contests that are coming up," Howard Wolfson told reporters during the call (which lasted more than an hour; I hung up about 65 minutes in, after Wolfson admitted he had accidentally disconnected himself and asked whether he had missed anything). "If you don't, it says something profound about Democrats' unease."
For Obama to lose any one state to Clinton on Tuesday would show he hasn't locked up the nomination after all, Wolfson argued. "If he can't put Senator Clinton away here, even though he acts like he's the front-runner, portrays himself as the front-runner, the campaign portrays itself as the inevitable, anointed nominee, there's a problem," he said. "And the problem is that people want Senator Clinton to continue in this race."
Of course, plenty of previous Democratic nominees have lost elections well after vanquishing their competition. In 1976, Jimmy Carter lost Alabama, Nebraska and Maryland, among others, after he had effectively clinched the party's mantle. In 1984, Walter Mondale lost California, the final primary, as well as several other late contests, to Gary Hart, before consolidating his lead (helped along by, ahem, superdelegates) and winning the nod. And yes, Bill Clinton, in 1992, lost Connecticut and Colorado to Jerry Brown, though he had already emerged as the presumptive nominee by then.
How do I know all that? A helpful memo from Mark Penn -- yes, Clinton's chief strategist -- from two weeks ago laid it all out. Before Obama started winning every election in sight, the Clinton spin was that it didn't matter who won which states; delegates mattered, and losing a few states along the way to the nomination was no big deal.
Apparently that's only true if the nominee is Hillary Clinton.