Memo to Obama: win Iowa or lose the race
TO: Senator Barack Obama
FROM: Karl Rove
SUBJECT: How to Beat Hillary
Not that you have asked for advice, but here it is anyway: Iowa is your chance to best her. If you do not do it there, odds are you never will anywhere. You are way behind her in most national polls. The only way to change that is to beat her in Iowa so people around America take another look at you. You did a smart thing organising effectively in the early primary states. But you can take advantage of that only if you win Iowa and keep her from building an overwhelming sense of invincibility and inevitability.
The good news is you have again got “the buzz”. Polls are looking better for you in Iowa and the other early states. Your press is improving, with your performance at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner a big help. Hillary Clinton has made unforced errors. But she is still the frontrunner and there are several things you need to do quickly to win.
First, stop acting like a vitamin-deficient Adlai Stevenson. Striking a pose of being high-minded and too pure will not work. Americans want to see you scrapping and fighting for the job, not in a mean or ugly way but in a forceful and straightforward way.
Hillary may come over as calculating and shifty but she looks in control. You, on the other hand, often come over as weak and ineffectual. In some debates, you do not even look at her when disagreeing with her, making it look as if you are afraid of her. She offers you openings time and again but you do not take advantage of them. Sharpen your attacks and make them more precise.
Take the exchange in the Philadelphia debate about Bill and Hillary keeping documents hidden about her role as first lady in his White House. She was evasive. You spoke next. You would have won a big victory if you had turned to her and said: “Senator, with all due respect, you and your husband could release those documents right now if you wanted to. Your failure to do so raises questions among a lot of Americans about what you’re hiding and those questions would hurt our party if you were our nominee.” But your response was weak as dirty dishwater. Do not let other great opportunities pass by.
Second, focus on the fact that many Democrats have real doubts about Hillary. They worry she cannot win, will be a drag on the ticket and that if she got to the White House it would be a disaster. You know better than most what they are worried about; they have told you their fears. It is why you have done so well raising money from Bill’s backers and gaining support from Clinton administration officials. Talk about those doubts. Put them in a bigger context than just the two of you. Remind primary voters that these shortcomings will hurt Democratic chances.
Third, when you create controversies do not pick issues where you are playing the weaker hand. For example, you attacked her for lacking foreign policy experience. It is true she was first lady, not secretary of state, and nobody will ever mistake her for James Baker III. But your qualifications are even thinner; you were a state senator and lived in Indonesia when you were six. Big deal. Americans think she has more foreign policy experience than you – and she does.
Fourth, when you disagree with her be clear about what you believe. You cannot afford more garbled responses like the one you gave in Las Vegas on drivers’ licences for illegal aliens. Answer yes or no. Do not give voters evidence you are as calculating as her.
Fifth, you need to do a better job explaining what kind of change you represent. The change theme is a good one and Democratic voters know you were against the war and represent the idea of something fresh. But they do not know who you really are, what you want to do and where you want to take the country. Taking her down a few notches is step one; telling people who you are is the next. Both are necessary.
Sixth, find a way to gently belittle her whenever she tries to use disagreements among Democrats as an excuse to complain about being picked on. The toughest candidate in the field should not be able to complain when others disagree with her. This is not a coronation. Democrats do not like her sense of entitlement. She is not owed the nomination. It does not belong to her simply because her name is Clinton. So blow the whistle on her when she tries to become a victim. Do it with humour and a smile and it will sting even more.
Hillary comes across as cold, distant and conspiracy-minded, more like Richard Nixon than her sunny, charming husband. During the Clinton presidency she oversaw a disaster (the effort to sell Hillarycare) and argued hard against welfare reform, one of the promises on which he had campaigned. She is a hard-nosed competitor with a tough and seasoned staff.
But her record is weak, her personality off-putting and her support thin. If she wins the nomination it will be because her rivals – namely you – were weak when you confronted her and could not look her in the eye when you did. She is beatable but you have to raise your game. Iowa is your great chance for a breakthrough. Win it convincingly and you can build on it in the contests that follow. Lose it and victory becomes much more difficult.
The writer is former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush and advised on his 2000 and 2004 presidential election campaigns