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Clinton's Texas Ground Game Plunges Into Chaos

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Although the Clinton Campaign has been telling the press that they have the ground operations to pull off a win in Texas, those ground operations have not been in evidence when I've traveled to small towns to see how Bill Clinton is doing on the Texas stump. Wednesday evening in Victoria, down in the southeastern part of the state, incipient chaos threatened to overwhelm the "Early Vote" Rally precisely because there was no ground operation. The well-oiled, beautifully constructed state-level HRC campaign machine, focused and determined in Iowa, Nevada and California, is beginning to break down.

"It's a clusterfuck! Just a clusterfuck!" the Corpus Christi producer for a local news affiliate shouts into his cell phone. He's telling his boss that there will be no coverage of Bill Clinton's visit to Victoria for the 6 o'clock news. "Who's running this campaign anyway?" the producer asks, of no one in particular. "And now five hundred people have stomped away mad." He shakes his head. At that moment, twenty well-dressed elderly and middle-aged dignitaries and politicians exit the back of the local arts center and walk slowly for the intersection of Goodwin and Main. Presumably, they are Hillary Clinton supporters; however, given their dazed faces, they look more like commissars who have been turned out by the NKVD and cannot believe how suddenly their fortunes have changed.

With his Secret Service agents at his side, Bill Clinton walks the short block without acknowledging the little group of eminent supporters. (They are never introduced or explained.) A rumpled Dolores Huerta (she's been wearing the same clothes for several days) trails behind. An aide helps Clinton and Huerta up onto the tailgate of a pick-up truck. Although Huerta has been feisty on the campaign trail for Hillary, she's perfunctory tonight. Few, if any, of the crowd ringing the intersection know who she is. Bill Clinton takes the microphone, which barks in the damp air. It's twilight and more rain is on the way. Bill Clinton has already spoken today at Galveston and Beaumont. He's going to be very late for his last appearance of the night at the University of Houston. Here in Victoria the former president, standing on the tailgate, at first seems to love the unplanned venue. But he never hits his stride and in disjointed fashion rushes through his speech, a shorter version (without any of the swipes at Obama) of the one I heard last week in Nacogdoches. Huerta and Clinton are on autopilot, and the crowd knows it. Only from one curb where the local organizer churns enthusiasm is there much response to Clinton's words. Most of the folks, and there must be a thousand people in all, including those hanging over the balconies of a parking garage, are merely curious.

The debacle in Victoria illustrates why a ground operation is important. The details of planning have been left to a local volunteer, and she has been overwhelmed. How was she to know the needs of the live press? Or that live press often arrive before the print media? (This confusion led to some journalists being locked out.) Or the possibility of having to entertain a restive audience, because this former president typically runs very late? Actually, the citizens of Victoria were patient, sitting quietly in the Welder Center auditorium for three hours waiting for Bill Clinton. Many people had brought their children, and they were patient, too. But when a young Clinton aide appeared on the podium and announced that the rally was being moved to the street, so that Bill Clinton could address a larger crowd from the back of a truck, displeasure was expressed all 'round. Many families left in disgust. They had arrived early to get seats--and now they were being told they had to stand on the street? But the anger of the locals was nothing compared to that of the Texas press. The press had been waiting for hours, too; it had taken time to lay cables and run through all the fussing and tweaking cameramen typically do. And when the press trudged out the auditorium doors, they discovered that their umbrellas, which had been confiscated as some kind of security measure (the only one), had been appropriated, undoubtedly by the disgruntled locals.

In the end, there was only a slightly larger throng on the street than there would have been if the rally had been kept in the auditorium, with the audio/video feed for the overflow in the foyer. The rally had been set originally for the town square; somehow no one had thought to check the weather forecast in southeast Texas this week. More importantly, there was no Clinton organizer on the ground ahead-of-time in Victoria to make the right decision about the venue and to have the clout to tell Bill Clinton and his entourage, when they arrived, that moving the rally to the street was a bad idea. Poor decision-making likely cost Hillary Clinton more than a few votes in Victoria.

"Hillary feels it altogether fitting that her fate in this presidential race should be in the hands of Texas," Bill Clinton says, near the close of his brief remarks. There is a strong note of acceptance in his voice, a grace note in marked contrast to the tone of remarks that will most be remembered as his contribution to Election 2008. He's looking down at a motley crowd; some hold Ron Paul placards and handmade signs saying ABORTION KILLS. Back in Iowa and California, good ground operations had the planning and the numbers of trained volunteers to prevent such a show. This is why event participants were never allowed to bring in their own signs. In Victoria, as in Nacogdoches, there's an undercurrent--not quite disrespect, but close.

Now near the end of primary season Bill Clinton makes the case for Hillary's experience. He can be impassioned and eloquent about her "thirty-five years of service," but in Victoria, he's rushed and disorganized. He's like the student who, despite shuffling through his notes, is unable to marshal his disparate thoughts into a coherent argument. This evening, gathered together on the corner of Goodwin and Main, we should be following along as Bill Clinton recites a story we all know well--the press mumbling and grumbling, because we've heard the story so many times, the crowd enchanted to be treated to a familiar tale told, and told well, again. But the Clinton Campaign never wrote the Hillary Story, that engaging narrative of her journey as a young woman from Illinois to Arkansas through Texas. Only now are Americans hearing bits and pieces, and Bill Clinton struggles to arrange them into narrative from the back of a white pick-up truck in Victoria.