Diary

The Fear Factor

When things go wrong for a campaign, they go wrong in groups. Rarely is there an endeavor where the “when it rains, it pours” motto applies more. A couple of weeks ago, while Barack Obama was in Europe, it seemed that nothing whatsoever could go right for John McCain. Now . . . well, it’s not so much that things don’t go right for Barack Obama. But it certainly does seem that there is a lot of anxiety suddenly associated with his campaign.

Consider this:

Few people are more likely to need a holiday than Barack Obama. Yet as he heads off on Friday for his first week-long break since he launched his presidential bid 19 months ago, Mr Obama is dogged by rising angst about his campaign’s direction.

Although he has run what is widely acclaimed to be one of the most impressive campaigns in years, Democrats live in fear of Mr Obama falling prey to the kinds of accident that derailed predecessors in earlier cycles.

With polls showing him neck-and-neck with John McCain at a stage at which many Democrats expected he would be in the clear lead, they worry about the kind of stray image that helped to defeat John Kerry in 2004.

In a piece of footage endlessly recycled to mock his supposed elitism and even foreignness, Mr Kerry was caught on camera windsurfing off Massachusetts. Since Mr Obama is taking his holiday at a private beach house in Hawaii, surrounded by the secret service, campaign officials worry less about his exposure to the paparazzi. Besides, they say, most Americans will be tuned into the Olympics.

I really don’t think that anyone needs to worry about “stray images” from the beach at Hawaii. Rather, they need to worry why it is that in a Democratic year, the presumptive Democratic nominee isn’t running away with the race. Again, as I have written before, maybe he eventually will run away with the race. But the fact that John McCain is keeping it close has to be worrisome for the Obama campaign. There is no other way to look at it. The average Real Clear Politics lead for Obama is 3.6 points. It should be a whole lot more–especially given the turmoil that has surrounded a lot of the McCain campaign’s operations.

As if all of this is not irritating enough:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Thursday dismissed suggestions that the nominating convention could be marred by tensions between his supporters and the die-hard backers of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama told reporters that their staffs were working out mutually agreeable convention logistics. At the same time, Clinton was assuring her supporters in an online chat that she and Obama were “working together to make sure it’s a big success.”

Neither directly answered questions about whether Clinton’s name should be placed in nomination so that her backers could record their votes.

Obama clinched the nomination after a sometimes bitter primary contest with Clinton. Amid reports that some Clinton backers hope to raise her profile at the convention or even continue to push her candidacy, Clinton and Obama were publicly trying to ease the strained relations that exist between some of their supporters.

And more:

. . . In public, Clinton is doing everything she is asked — and then some — to help the man who defeated her get elected to the White House. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama from her extensive network of donors and has spoken to many of the groups, including key unions, that backed her in the primaries. She is set to hit the campaign trail on his behalf, starting with rallies and voter-registration drives this month in Nevada and Florida. “I’m doing all I know to do,” she insists.

But behind the united front, says an adviser, “it’s not a great relationship, and it’s probably not going to become one.” In private conversations, associates say, Clinton remains skeptical that Obama can win in the fall. That’s a sentiment some other Democrats believe is not just a prediction but a wish, because it would prove her right about his weaknesses as a general-election candidate and possibly pave the way for her to run again in 2012. Clinton is also annoyed that Obama has yet to deliver on his end of an informal bargain, reached as part of their truce, that each would raise $500,000 for the other. “Hillary has done her part in that regard,” says an adviser. “Obama has not.”

Underlying it all is a feeling on Clinton’s part that Obama has never shown proper regard for a campaign she believes was as historic an achievement as his. True, Obama has asked Clinton to give a prime-time speech on the second night of the convention later this month. But as the odds that she will be Obama’s running mate have faded, there are signs that Clinton’s backers could demand one last show of respect before Obama claims the nomination in Denver. Clinton has been giving tacit encouragement to suggestions that her name be placed in nomination at the convention, a symbolic move that would be a reminder of the bruising primary battle. “No decisions have been made,” Clinton said when asked in California — to whoops and applause — about that possibility. Still, it was hard to miss what Clinton would like to see in the pointed way she added, “Delegates can decide to do this on their own. They don’t need permission.” Some of her allies are not so enthusiastic about that kind of gesture. Says Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz: “We really need to focus at the convention on unifying the party behind Senator Obama.”

Meanwhile, if Hillary Clinton’s feelings are still bruised, her husband’s are positively raw. The former President is particularly resentful of suggestions–which he believes were fueled by the Obama camp–that he attempted to play upon racial fears during the primaries. Not helping is the fact that Obama has yet to follow up on the tentative dinner plans he and Bill Clinton made at the end of the primary season. “It’s personal with him, in terms of his own legacy,” says a friend of Bill Clinton’s. “And the race stuff really left a bad taste in his mouth.”

Bill Clinton’s resentment came through in an interview with ABC News during his recent trip to Africa. Asked what regrets he might have about his role in his wife’s campaign, he bristled and then shot back, “I am not a racist. I never made a racist comment.” He struggled to render a positive comment about Obama’s qualifications for his old job. “You could argue that nobody is ever ready to be President,” Clinton said. “You could argue that even if you’ve been Vice President for eight years, that no one can ever be fully ready for the pressures of the office.” Pressed again, he responded with an endorsement that could hardly have been a weaker cup of tea: “I never said he wasn’t qualified. The Constitution sets qualification for the President. And then the people decide who they think would be the better President. I think we have two choices. I think he should win, and I think he will win.”

With friends like the Clintons . . . you know the rest. But just because it may not be fair that Obama has to put up with the former First Couple, it does not mean that their intransigence–and let’s be clear, if she really wanted to, Hillary Clinton could get her husband to calm down–won’t cause significant problems for Obama’s campaign going forward. Coyness, it should be noted, doesn’t help matters. Neither does stuff like this.

It’ll be an interesting three months. Will Obama make it through without sabotaging himself and without being sabotaged by the Clintons? And will the Clintons sublimate their desire to win in 2012 and go all out for Obama? Who says that campaigns can’t turn into soap operas?