Obama's "bitter" gaffe is just the miracle Clinton needed.

Down and on the way out.
April 14 2008 12:31 PM

The Hillary Deathwatch

Obama's "bitter" gaffe is just the miracle Clinton needed.

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Barack Obama's "bitter" comment is just the gaffe Clinton needed to woo superdelegates. Her chances of winning the nomination jump 4.5 points to 14.2 percent.

Hillary Clinton needed a miracle. She's down in pledged delegates, likely to lose the popular vote, and slipping on the superdelegate front. So, Barack Obama's comment at a San Francisco fundraiser—that bitter Pennsylvanians "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" in response to economic hardship—is as close to divine intervention as she could get. With Pennsylvania a week off, Clinton has just enough time to foment outrage and perhaps regain her formerly wide lead in the polls. It's also as comprehensive a gaffe as Obama could have mustered: It's got elitism, guns, religion, immigration, and trade—just the controversy cocktail Clinton was waiting for.

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The "bitter" incident serves one real purpose for Clinton: It strengthens her case to superdelegates. Clinton has already been painting a potential Obama nomination as a disaster scenario. This flap gives her fresh buckets and a new brush. Among her plausible arguments: Obama just lost Pennsylvania in the general. He alienated Reagan Democrats across the country. He squandered a major advantage over the less-religious McCain. His "bitter" comments—and the attitudes they represent—are just the tip of an iceberg of vulnerabilities. Clinton even compared him to John Kerry and Al Gore (so much for that endorsement), who voters thought "did not really understand, or relate to, or respect their ways of life." An Obama nomination, she can now argue, would be the worst kind of disaster—a repeat.

But will it be enough to overcome the daunting delegate math? No. She still needs to win the rest of the states by fat margins and spark a mass superdelegate migration in order to secure the nomination. Even if the entire state of Pennsylvania is offended by Obama's remarks, she needs North Carolina, Indiana, and the rest to be equally miffed. And so far, Obama has been doing a fine cleanup job. He may not have chosen the right words, he says, but he was speaking elemental truths about economic hardship. (He's lucky Clinton's first salvo focused on the word bitter—the more defensible part of the statement—rather than the guns-and-religion part.) He also fired back, mocking Clinton for pretending she's "Annie Oakley" and portraying her attacks as dirty Washington politics: "Shame on her," he said. In some small way, Clinton may be doing Obama a favor—he's proving to superdelegates that he knows how to weather controversy and fight back.

Some pundits argue that Obama's mistake is a game-changer that will hurt him more than the Wright controversy ever did. That may be true. But Hillary won't be the one who benefits. John McCain will. If this flap revives Clinton's candidacy—which took a beating last week after her husband's Bosnia resurrection—it will only be for the short term. The election fundamentals still weigh heavily against her—a mathematical fact that makes Obama's screw-up, however damaging in the long run, little more than a speed bump on the road to the nomination.

For a full list of our Deathwatches, click here. For a primer on Hillary's sinking ship, visit our first Deathwatch entry. Send your own prognostications to hillarydeathwatch@gmail.com.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.