How to recover from a big loss in the early primaries.

How to recover from a big loss in the early primaries.

How to recover from a big loss in the early primaries.

The history behind current events.
Jan. 8 2008 4:54 PM

Attack in the Other Direction!

How to recover from a big loss in the early primaries.

Jeff Greenfield chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Click image to expand.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Addendum: OK, Hillary won tonight. Oh, waiter, two orders of crow, please. This is what happens when you ignore your own advice to let the people vote first.


In late November 1950, U.S. Marines at Chosin Reservoir in North Korea fell under withering assault by a massive force of 18 divisions of the Chinese army, which had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea despite Gen. Douglas MacArthur's absolute assertion that American forces could conquer the North without fear of a Chinese response. Faced with the disastrous results of MacArthur's overconfidence, Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith ordered his 5th and 7th Marine Regiments to fall back. When asked by a reporter about the retreat, Smith said (or at least the reporter had him say), "Retreat, hell! We're just attacking in another direction!"  

Now is the time for Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani to heed those words. For each of these candidates—at one time or another front-runners in either the national or Iowa and New Hampshire polls—the prospect of early defeats (or, in Giuliani's case, severely anemic showings) raises the political version of the North Korea question: Can a one-time favorite who suffers early setbacks revive a campaign by attacking in the other direction?

It has happened in the past. And so a look back suggests various approaches that today's upended front-runners could take.

1976—Reagan vs. Ford

In 1976, former Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. The unelected president was at a low point, with a job approval rating of 39 percent in December 1975, and an image as a stumblebum (which Saturday Night Live's Chevy Chase helped shape). In New Hampshire that year, Reagan battled Ford to a virtual tie. (Ford won by only 1,500 votes.) But because Reagan's state chairman had all but promised a landslide victory by a 2-to-1 margin, Reagan looked down. Ford then reeled off a string of victories, including Florida and Illinois, and a Reagan withdrawal seemed certain.

But in North Carolina, two weeks after the Florida loss seemingly doomed him, Reagan found his mark: the impending return of the Panama Canal to Panama as an embodiment of weak foreign policy. With a televised speech attacking the deal and the "détente" Cold War policies of "Dr. Kissinger and Mr. Ford" (a possibly accidental evocation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), along with the backing of Sen. Jesse Helms' political machine, Reagan won the North Carolina primary and began to pull himself back in contention. By the time the primary season ended, Reagan had won 10 primaries and earned almost as many votes as Ford. Only a series of deals with prominent conservatives and the dumping of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller saved the president, who won renomination by a narrow margin of delegates (1,187 to 1,070). From political near-death, Reagan had come closer than any challenger before or since to denying a president the renomination of his party.

Lesson: Sound the tone that sets your party's base vibrating and you will get your second chance.

1984—Mondale vs. Hart

Former Vice President Walter Mondale went into the New Hampshire primary with the biggest lead in the polls of any nonincumbent ever; he left New Hampshire with a 10-point loss at the hands of Sen. Gary Hart's "New Ideas" campaign. The scent of the loser hung all over Mondale, and further losses in other New England states pointed to an imminent collapse.  

But the very newness of Hart, and his scornful dismissal of Democrats' New Deal-Great Society heritage ("We're not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys" he once said), gave Mondale the chance to rally traditional party constituencies. Black politicians in Alabama and Georgia gave him desperately needed victories. Big city machines and labor unions in Illinois and New York helped win him primaries that put him back on top. Mondale struck gold during a March primary debate when, echoing a tagline from a popular ad of the day, he said to Hart, "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that commercial: 'Where's the beef?' " And press scrutiny of the new guy revealed that Hart had fibbed about his age, and changed his name and even his handwriting. In the end, the combination of Mondale's appeal to the base and Hart's transformation from new to suspect proved the difference. (The next time he campaigned for the presidency, in 1988, Hart needed no help to self-destruct—reports of his affair with Donna Rice did the job.)

Lesson: Turn the insurgent into the interloper who scorns the salt of your party's earth. Then step back and let the press train its guns on the new target of opportunity.

2000—Bush vs. McCain 

It looked like no contest between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his Republican rivals. Bush had all the money, virtually all the endorsements, and an apparent glide path to the nomination. But in New Hampshire, Arizona Sen. John McCain and his "Straight Talk" Express turned a guerilla campaign into an astounding 18-point win in the New Hampshire primary. Now it was Bush who was "on the ropes," "staggering," and whatever other sports metaphors headline writers could summon. McCain's reformist message had struck a chord.