Hillary: Beware the Ides of March

April is the cruelest month, wrote the poet T. S. Eliot. But Hillary Clinton must think it's February that deserves that title after her campaign struggled to survive in the waste land of winter while mixing memory of her days in the White House and her desire to return as the first woman president. But her future looks even crueler as the Ides of March approach.

Hillary had a worse February than Roger Clemens, sub-prime mortgage lenders or Kenya. After her dismal third place showing in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, she seemed poised to inherit her husband's title as the Comeback Kid when she defied the pollsters and defeated the golden-tongued political phenomenon, Barack Obama, in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.

But after proclaiming that she had found her own voice, she stumbled badly in South Carolina on Jan. 26 -- thanks in part to her husband's heavy-handed anti-Obama rhetoric -- before losing her aura of inevitability by essentially splitting the Feb. 5 mega-round of Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. And even though she won the Massachusetts primary, she was stunned when Ted Kennedy and JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy declared their support of Obama.

She soon was stripped of her frontrunner status and delegate advantage by Obama, who took control of the race for the nomination by winning eleven straight contests in February, all by lopsided margins, while drawing massive crowds everywhere, leaving her in a fight for survival in the delegate-rich March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries -- which her husband unhelpfully said she must win or give up her candidacy.

At almost every turn in February, the news got worse for Hillary. Reports of her political demise were common as she fired her campaign manager; loaned $5 million to keep her campaign afloat; argued that Michigan and Florida's delegates should be seated despite violating party rules for holding too-early primaries; lost the support of two key unions -- the Service Employees International and the United Food and Commercial Workers; canceled a Fort Worth rally when a Dallas police officer was killed in a motorcycle accident as he escorted her motorcade on Feb. 21; watched helplessly as Georgia Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, switched his support to Obama; and became embroiled in a controversy over a photograph of Obama wearing a turban and native garb in Kenya that her aides allegedly leaked to the Drudge Report.

Even her conciliatory gesture toward Obama when she shook hands with him after their debate in Austin, Texas and declared, "Whatever happens, we're going to be fine," forced her to deny it was a signal of surrender.

As a result, Clinton saw the double digit leads she enjoyed in Texas and Ohio just a few weeks ago vanish. Frustrated, she went on the offensive, accusing Obama of lifting part of a speech by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, his friend and campaign adviser; of accepting the support of the controversial pastor of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and of the Nation of Islam's incendiary Louis Farrakhan; and of distorting her record on healthcare reform. In a 20th and probably final debate on Feb. 26, she attacked Obama for his stands on healthcare, Nafta, Iraq and his lack of foreign policy experience.

She and her aides also bitterly complained that Obama is getting a free ride from an adoring press, She reiterated her complaint in last week's MSNBC debate in Cleveland, a point partially proven by Tim Russert's Torquemada-type inquisition.

Then on February's leap year extra day, Clinton unleashed her harshest attack yet on Obama by releasing a breathtakingly cynical TV ad in Texas that echoed the infamous "Daisy" ad that President Johnson used to great effect against Barry Goldwater in 1964, which showed a little girl picking petals off a flower just before a nuclear mushroom erupted. A similar ad was used by former Vice President Walter Mondale to successfully undercut his challenger, Sen. Gary Hart, in 1984; Roy Spence, who made that spot, is an advertising adviser to Clinton.

The 30-second spot shows sleeping children and asks voters who they would want answering the White House red phone at 3 a.m. "when something's happening in the world?" It was designed to invoke fears that Obama couldn't handle a world crisis, unlike "someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military -- someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world." Just in case the massage doesn't make its point, the ad ends with Clinton, wearing reading glasses and holding a phone. Obama's camp denounced the ad as "fear mongering."

And although her campaign was essentially broke in early February, Clinton had collected $35 million by month's end. Still, she failed to match Obama's huge numbers from his Internet donor base -- his campaign just signed up its one-millionth donor and is expected to set a one-month record by raising more than $50 million. However, Clinton demonstrated a remarkable ability to keep raising money as she attracted some 200,000 new contributors, even as her campaign suffered repeated setbacks, allowing her to saturate the airwaves with campaign ads in Ohio and Texas.

But whether that will be enough to enable her to continue after March 4 is problematical, despite supporters who anonymously declare that "she has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she's out" (Rhode Island and Vermont are voting the same day). As the Washington Post's Dan Balz, who has emerged as one of the ablest chroniclers of the 2008 campaign, reported on March 1, Clinton's last-minute efforts may not be enough, at least in Ohio.

"It's not that our [ad] buy isn't strong, it's very strong," a Clinton campaign official told Balz.. "It's that their buy is gargantuan and amplified with two big independent buys." Balz also reported that the Obama campaign, helped by independent expenditure ads by the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers, has almost a four-to-one advantage over Clinton in Ohio TV ads.

The stark reality that Clinton faces on March 4 is that she not only needs to win in Ohio and Texas, but she needs to win big. As Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told Balz, Clinton "... needs a real boost in Ohio and -- not or -- Texas going into the next six weeks, if in fact she stays for the next six weeks. ... In the starkest of terms, this is pretty simple. She's got to win by a margin which gets her a boost in delegates."

The Ides of March don't occur until the 15th, but Clinton must be painfully aware that it was, after all, a fellow senator who plunged the dagger into Caesar's chest.