An Arkansas state legislator once said of Bill Clinton that he would pat you on the back while he urinated down your leg. The corollary for Clinton's wife Hillary could be that she will tell the world how honored she is to share a stage with Barack Obama even as she's gearing up to smash him. When it comes to politics, the Clinton philosophy is simple: It's war, and wars are for winning. Bill put it this way, back in 1981: "When someone is beating you over the head with a hammer, don't sit there and take it. Take out a meat cleaver and cut off their hand."
With her presidential hopes at stake in Texas and Ohio, Hillary Clinton reached for the cleaver. Her campaign made good on its promise to throw "the kitchen sink" at Obama, and that paid off with clear popular-vote victories in both states. What's more, she said, "I'm just getting warmed up."
Even for some of her supporters, those are ominous words. Democrats now face a reality they were hoping they might avoid: a knock-down, drag-out struggle between two strong candidates lasting at least seven more weeks and possibly all the way to the convention. For the party that was assumed to have the advantage in November against a G.O.P. that was unpopular and riven by infighting, this turnabout is both depressing and distressing.
While the Democratic channel changed from Happy Days to The Ultimate Fighter, Republicans settled on their standard-bearer. John McCain's final challenger, Mike Huckabee, bowed out with a smile. The G.O.P. can begin regrouping and mobilizing for the general election this fall while the Democrats pitch headlong into an intramural scrum that could leave their nominee whoever wins scarred and limping. Donna Brazile, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, urged party chairman Howard Dean to intervene before matters get out of hand. (Dean remains largely out of the fight, saying in a statement only that "as we head toward November, our nominee must have the united support of a strong Democratic Party.") "I'm really worried," Brazile says. "Who opened up the gates of hell?"
Exaggeration? You can be sure that the Democratic race will be rough from here on out. Clinton's victories in Texas and Ohio states where her campaign estimates Obama and his allies outspent her by more than 2 to 1 on advertising alone came only after she ramped up her assault on Obama. Her previous sweetness was getting her nothing but declining poll numbers. Clinton questioned her opponent's honesty after it was reported that an adviser had assured Canadian government officials that Obama didn't really mean his anti-free-trade rhetoric. "The old wink-wink," Clinton said scornfully. Four days before the Tuesday primaries, she went up with a chilling and provocative advertisement juxtaposing images of slumbering children with the urgent ringing of the national-security hotline in the White House. "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep," the announcer says. "Who do you want answering the phone?"
For months, the Democratic candidates, including Clinton, devoutly observed that any of them would be a better President than another Republican. But in leveling her charge that the first-term Illinois Senator would be unprepared in a national-security crisis, Clinton went so far as to compare him unfavorably with McCain. "I have a lifetime of experience I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience he will bring to the White House," she told reporters the morning before the contests. "And Senator Obama has a speech he made in 2002" a reference to Obama's declaration against the Iraq invasion that she and McCain had voted to authorize. Obama has repeatedly referred to that speech as proof that his judgment is superior, even if his résumé is shorter.
At the same time, the Clinton campaign stepped up its attacks on the media, insisting that Obama has been receiving kid-glove treatment. The theme sank into the broad public consciousness when Saturday Night Live returned from the writers' strike to make a recurring theme of the fawning press. Perhaps eager to prove that they can be equally tough on Obama, journalists filled that week with stories about Obama's Canada problem and his ties to an indicted Chicago real estate developer, Tony Rezko.
The numbers tell the story: it worked. And so, Howard Dean or no Howard Dean, there is going to be more of it. Indeed, the Clinton campaign has been trying to go on the attack since Obama's win in Iowa kicked off their epic struggle. Early attempts by Bill Clinton to scrape off some of Obama's smooth persona backfired, and later barrages like the charge that Obama plagiarized parts of his speeches failed only (a Clinton campaign official maintains) because the hectic calendar of primaries and caucuses allowed no time for them to "seep in." You could fill an aquifer in the long stretch between now and the April 22 Pennsylvania contest.
And Obama has no intention of taking it without hitting back. "If she starts asserting that somehow I'm not ready and that one of the reasons that the Democrats or superdelegates should not vote for me is because 'we don't know enough about him' or 'there may be things in his past or his character that make him vulnerable to Republican attack,' then I think it's certainly fair to compare our track records to see whether or not I am more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks."