Following one of the more unpredictable stretches of the primary campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama head into their first debate tonight in more than six weeks with different mandates.
Most polls show Clinton with a lead in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary, though not positioned for the kind of blowout win that pundits say she needs to significantly narrow the gap in pledged delegates or to signal a major momentum shift. With limited opportunities to alter the direction of the race, Clinton must aim to take advantage of the spotlight and continue to cast doubt about Obama's electability in November.
Heading into the debate after some of the toughest weeks of his campaign, Obama will have to lure back voters who may grown uneasy with his candidacy. He will likely have to explain, yet again, what he meant when he told donors in San Francisco last week that Pennsylvanians are “bitter” over their economic circumstances and “cling” to religion and guns. And he may also have to revisit his relationship with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, another controversy that erupted since Obama and Clinton last debated in February.
“He has to decide if he wants to play it safe because it is probable that he will be the nominee or he wants it to end,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public affairs consultant. “She has to swing for the fence. She may not have any other opportunities.”
Indeed, after more than 20 debates in 15 months of campaigning, there are no more scheduled for the primary season. Clinton agreed to an April 27 debate in North Carolina, but Obama has not yet committed, telling a local newspaper that their nationally-televised meetings are less informative than his town hall events.
The campaign has taken several twists and turns since March 4, when Clinton won Ohio, Rhode Island and the Texas popular vote, and Obama won Vermont. And Wednesday’s debate may keep the focus on some of themes that have dominated the campaign storyline over that six-week period- Obama’s small-town remarks and his former pastor; Clinton’s debunked Bosnia story -rather than on major policy differences, which have minimized over the course of the primary season.
Obama was holed up Tuesday night in his Philadelphia hotel, prepping for the debate. Aides said the Illinois senator will continue to defend the gist of his remarks by arguing that it is his rivals who are out of touch.
His wife, Michelle, joined his defense at a stop Tuesday in suburban Philadelphia, offering details of their modest upbringings as a way to deflate the charges of elitism.
“There’s a lot of people talking about elitism and all of that,” Michelle Obama told a gathering at Haverford College. “So let me tell you who Barack and I are, so you are not confused. Yeah, I went to Princeton and Harvard, but the lens through which I see the world is the lens I grew up with. I am the product of a middle class upbringing, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a working class community.”
Clinton must strike the right balance between challenging Obama on his “bitter” remarks and eliciting groans from the audience with her criticism, as she did Monday during an event in Pittsburgh - an awkward moment that now opens Obama’s latest Pennsylvania TV ad.
She may face questions about her retelling of a story, which she has since retracted, claiming that she landed in Bosnia in 1996 under sniper fire, and criticism from Obama about her accepting campaign contributions from registered lobbyists. Clinton has yet to come up with a strong counterpunch to Obama’s charges, which he is currently highlighting in a direct mail piece in Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania is a necessary condition for her to survive for the rest of the way,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in llentown. “If she ends up on election night with a 2- or 3-point win, she will have a nice celebratory speech and for practical purposes, she will have seen her campaign’s chances evaporate.
“Something has to break the dynamic,” he said. “I don’t know if she can do that in one debate, but if she is going to have the chance to move beyond Pennsylvania in a meaningful way - not just a desperation play - she has to move voters.”