It’s time for Hillary Clinton to step up.
Over the past six months, Barack Obama has demonstrated an incredible ability to make big gains in states where Clinton was seen as unbeatable.
He did it in California, Texas, Ohio and again in Pennsylvania. In all cases, Clinton was a clear favourite in the weeks before the primary, often by more than 20 percentage points.
But by the time the votes are counted, her victories were marginal or, at the very least, much diminished compared to initial expectations.
The net result has been an overall lead for Obama tempered by a clinging sense of possibility around Clinton.
With the pressure on Clinton to deliver at least an overall popular vote victory, the tables have turned.
In two weeks, primaries will be held in Indiana and North Carolina. Conventional wisdom (and polling) says that Indiana is a potential win for Clinton and that North Carolina is a big win for Obama.
And it’s there, in North Carolina, that Clinton must demonstrate her ability to do what Obama has done — pull off an upset at the polls and discredit the pundits.
To argue that she is a winner, Clinton must show the ability to grow in the days and weeks before a state where her opponent has a substantial lead.
Democrats know that Obama can close the gap. And there is a sense that in a clearer battle between a Democrat and Republican, that gap could be fully closed and red states could start turning blue.
That scenario isn’t seen as possible under a Clinton ticket, and that impression is bolstered by the fact that, up to now, Clinton has been awful in states where she starts out behind.
In South Carolina, which was once fertile Clinton ground, she started eight or nine points back, but ended getting clobbered by double digits.
In Wisconsin, same thing.
In fact, in all three of those states, Obama turned potential 10- or 12-percentage-point victories into 20-something victories.
But this is a new Hillary. This is the tenacious underdog, the champion of the working class, the 1990s Clinton, rather than the 2007 “inevitable” Clinton.
The image is a better fit and it suits her new task well.
Even so, she likely lacks the tools to conquer the mountain.
For Obama, closing the gap has been about making a connection with new voters and getting people to sever old allegiances. He made his case through compelling speeches, extensive (positive) advertising, and by peddling “change” and “hope” as real political commodities.
Clinton can’t rely on the same approach.
She already has a connection with voters and for many it’s not a positive connection. She isn’t a great orator. She doesn’t have the funds for extensive advertising. And rather than “change” and “hope,” she sells the much more common commodity of “fear.”
If she can’t overcome those limitations, she will fail in her bid to make North Carolina competitive. But if she can take her new image and craft a corresponding message of “the fighter” and the champion of the little guy, she has a shot.
And the prize might well be the nomination.
Because if Clinton can pull it off and close the gap enough to actually win North Carolina, she will have made the case that she is the candidate better positioned to swing voters into the Democratic camp.
She will have done what Obama failed to do in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania — win.
It would be an incredibly compelling example of her “resurrection,” if only because it is so completely improbable.
The much more likely outcome is that Obama will close the gap in Indiana (maybe win) and clobber her in North Carolina.
But her campaign isn’t about “likely” anymore.
And frankly, anything less than that kind of massive upset will ensure a superdelegate flood to Obama.
Michael Hale is a former journalist and political hack who can finally see the end in sight. You can read his blog at north60hale.blogspot.com