You almost had to feel sorry for a few of Hillary Clinton's senior advisors on Wednesday morning. Starting their conference call with reporters may have been, I imagine, something like walking out to face the firing squad. They tried to put on a game face, but they didn't always sound as if they believed their own spin, and they knew that waiting on the other end of the line was a pack of reporters just salivating, waiting for their turn to ask the next in a long line of skewering questions.
It would have helped, certainly, if they had had some better news to deliver. But from the beginning of the call, when strategist Geoff Garin told reporters that "in the sweep of things," her squeaker of a victory in Indiana "represents significant progress for Sen. Clinton," the campaign's spin was coming up limp. Spokesman Howard Wolfson said later, "These were two states we were supposed to lose. We won one of them." And, Clinton aides said, Indiana was a comeback victory for Clinton -- the campaign's internal polling, they claimed, had once shown her 8 points behind there. Garin also asserted that North Carolina's results represented "progress" for Clinton. Drawing an analogy to Virginia, Garin said she'd done better with white voters in North Carolina on Tuesday night than she did in Virginia, adding, "We started even in North Carolina among the white electorate just two weeks ago and ended up earning a very significant win of 24 points among those voters. We obviously did not do as well as we would want or needed to among African-American voters."
Both Garin and Wolfson hit familiar messages about swing voters and swing states as well, saying Clinton is better positioned than Barack Obama to beat John McCain this fall. "Sen. Obama has not yet proven he can win key swing states, has not yet proven he can win among blue-collar workers," Wolfson said. And they renewed their calls for delegates from Michigan and Florida to be seated at the Democratic convention this summer.
But the pair also confirmed what seems to be bad financial news for the Clinton camp: a series of loans from the candidate to her campaign. Wolfson told reporters Clinton had made three recent loans: $5 million on April 11, $1 million on May 1 and $425,000 on May 5. That prompted questions from one reporter about where that money had come from -- counting the previous loan Clinton had made, she now seems to have lent more than she has earned from her books and Senate salary combined, which suggested that she was drawing on assets held jointly with husband Bill Clinton. "I dispute the notion there is a distinction between her share of their joint assets and her money," Wolfson said. Asked if there was a limit to what she'd be willing to commit, he said, "Legally, she is entitled to use up to 50 percent of her jointly held assets."
And the two were, of course, challenged by some reporters. Mother Jones' David Corn asked whether the Clinton camp foresees any problems for a nominee hypothetically chosen at the Democratic convention while trailing in both the popular vote and the pledged-delegate count. To that, Wolfson responded, "Look, I've always said that we expect that when we get to June 3 that we'll have a very close result. It raises the question of how close is close, and it will be a little harder to tell because of Michigan and Florida. But in the polling data I've seen there's hardly been a dispositive result among the electorate itself that the party leaders ... have to rigidly follow the pledged delegates."
And another reporter pointed out that while the Clinton camp has repeatedly denigrated Obama for his inability to capture the white working-class demographic in the primaries thus far, Clinton has shown herself unable to win a key Democratic group, African-Americans. The Clinton aides had little response.
A conference call held by the Obama campaign, meanwhile, was much more upbeat. Campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters, "We can see the finish line here" and said Obama had netted 13 delegates Tuesday night. Sen. John Kerry, an Obama supporter, was also on the call. "Last night Barack Obama took a decisive stride towards the nomination," Kerry said. "He clearly did more than he had to, and [Clinton] did not achieve what she had to."