“I'm going to do everything I can to win,” Hillary Clinton confessed in the days prior to the all-critical Pennsylvania primary. If her victory yesterday, by a highly respectable 10-point margin, proves one thing, it is that the Senator from New York made good on her promise.
It wasn’t an easy sell. With her impressive fortune – the New York Times recently revealed that the Clintons earned $109 million in the past eight years, placing the candidate in the top one-hundredth of one percent of all taxpayers – Clinton doesn’t exactly conjure up the image of a working-class striver that has become synonymous with Keystone State voters. Which was why, in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s primary, she worked overtime to reinvent herself as the small-town loving, god worshipping, gun-toting everywoman -- everything, in short, that she is not.
It was a desperate and determined performance that ranged from the mildly amusing to the downright ridiculous. In the former category, there was Clinton’s timely reminiscence about her childhood hunting ducks in Pennsylvania, a chapter that seldom features in her campaign biography. “You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught be how to shoot when I was a little girl,” she recalled, discovering her inner gun enthusiast. Elsewhere on the stump, Clinton drained a shot of whiskey at a local bar, apparently to prove that she, too, understood the curious ways of more humble folk.
Calculated though it was, Clinton’s transformation into cultural conservative seems to have succeeded. Not only did she edge out Obama in yesterday’s primary, getting a much needed rhetorical boost to a campaign that many have been writing off as hopeless, but she prevailed among the very demographics she had been courting. Thus, the majority of white males – some 55 percent – ended up choosing Clinton over Obama. Among voters who attend church weekly, Clinton crushed Obama by a whopping 61 percent to 39 percent margin. And if her conversion to Reagan Democrat was just a little too convenient to be credible, she nevertheless played the part better than her opponent.
It hardly hurt Clinton’s campaign that Obama spent much of the time before yesterday’s vote defending himself against compelling charges of condescension and liberal elitism. With his now-notorious assertion that voters in economically depressed areas “cling” to their political preferences, including support for gun rights and religious faith, out of bitterness, Obama presented Clinton with the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the traditionalist values for which she previously had little use. Nor did it help that revelations about his friends on Chicago’s South Side, not least his acerbically anti-American pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, made of mockery of Obama’s promise to heal the country’s racial and political ills. In the end, Clinton’s victory was as much a credit to her populist pitch as it was a sign of Obama’s self-inflicted troubles.
Still, and notwithstanding the spin of the Clinton campaign, it is a stretch to say that yesterday’s win signals a comeback for Hillary. By most professional counts, it’s now mathematically impossible for Clinton to match Obama in either the popular vote or the delegate count. (Clinton has 1,544 delegates to Obama’s 1,685 and there are not enough delegates at stake in the remaining contests to level the gap.) Then there are Clinton’s financial woes. Nearly $1 million in debt as of the end of March, Clinton looks increasingly unlikely to match the fundraising powerhouse that is the Obama campaign.
Her last hope is to convince Democratic Party leaders, the storied “superdelegates,” that she is the best candidate to take on John McCain. On this count, at least, last night’s triumph brings some good news for Clinton. If one aim of the Pennsylvania primary was to demonstrate which Democrat can best attract the white, working-class voters that will be so instrumental in the general election, Clinton can claim, with some merit, that she should be the superdelegates’ choice. Clinton may have been too ambitious when she declared during her victory speech last night that “the tide is turning.” But given that Pennsylvania represents her third consecutive win in a big state, after Texas and Ohio, it cannot be dismissed as wishful thinking.
For all that, the odds don’t favor a Clinton revival. Despite his defeat in Pennsylvania, Obama remains the clear favorite of the party’s base. It’s difficult to imagine the party’s superdelegates defying the popular will and denying him the nomination. In the battle for her party’s biggest prize Clinton, gun lover though she now affects to be, simply doesn’t seem to have enough firepower.