May 18, 2008

May 7, 2008: Reversal of Fortune, The Thirteenth Round, Toast

 Election night in Indiana began with Terry McAuliffe, former Chairman of the national Democratic
Party and now full-time business consultant and Clinton spokesman, appearing on MSNBC confidently predicting a smashing victory in Indiana that would materially alter the dynamics of the contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The Clinton camp began the night confident that they could close the gap in North Carolina where Obama’s lead had been cut from over 20 percentage points to between 6 and 8 percent depending upon the poll. Indiana was looking much better with polls showing Hillary ahead by 6 to 8 points as voters were heading to the polls. The Clintons, factoring in the ‘Bradley Effect’ as well as the trend of late decider’s to track toward Hillary, began the night boisterously confident of their candidate’s chances. Howard Wolfson, the possum faced press spokesman of the Clinton campaign, openly talked about losing narrowly in North Carolina—where like her sister-state Obama, because of his race, was expected to do well—but winning big in Indiana demonstrating Hillary the superior candidate best able to assemble a broad-base coalition necessary to derail the good Marshall’s ‘straight-talk’ express. There was open talk in the Clinton camp of winning both states with a knock-out punch or at minimum winning Indiana and walking away with a net gain of several hundred thousand votes. Enough votes to assume, if you count the contested results in Michigan and Florida, the uncontested lead in the popular vote.

As the night began, it looked like it would all go according to script. Early returns out of Indiana showed a twenty point Clinton lead, with Obama narrowly besting her in North Carolina. But early signs of trouble emerged right off the starting block. No sooner had the polls closed when the networks immediately called North Carolina for Obama indicating that his margin of victory would be well above what the early returns were indicating. As the night progressed the huge lead in Indiana began to evaporate. By ten in the evening the outlines were becoming clear: Obama was running up a huge majority in North Carolina, far larger than his African-American political base would warrant, and Hillary’s lead in Indiana diminished as returns kept coming in. By two in the morning the networks would call it, Clinton would win Indiana, but by a mere 16,000 votes—a small enough margin so that Rusty “Rush to Judgment” Limbaugh could take credit for the Clinton victory by claiming that enough of his listeners, following his “operation chaos” stratagem, showed up at the polls and crossed party lines to vote for Hillary and by so doing keep the contest and the divisiveness going within the Democratic Party. What began as a night that would change the landscape ended with a huge reaffirmation of the Obama candidacy in effect wiping out whatever electoral gains Clinton had got from her victory in Pennsylvania. Crushed in North Carolina by a 57-42 margin, and limping to victory in Indiana with the help of Rupert Murdock, Fixed News, and Rusty Limbaugh, Hillary put on her ‘game’ face and pledged to trudge on.

Once again it is instructive to return to the world of sports, this time boxing, since everyone was looking for that ever elusive punch that would bring this contest to a merciful end. Once again it is useful to return to the “Thrilla in Manila”, the last of three heavyweight contests between ‘Smokin’ Joe’ Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Frazier won the first match, Ali the rematch and the contest in Manila was billed as the fight that would forever decide who was the best in the world, perhaps the greatest of all-time. The fight followed the pattern of the previous two fights. The first rounds went to Ali who would, through superior reach and speed, stick and move, keeping Frazier at bay with his flicking left jab and hitting him hard with an occasional right hand. But because he was no longer the young man who fought Liston and Cooper, Ali, knowing that the fight would definitely go into the later rounds if not the distance, would in the middle rounds lie against the ropes and Frazier would pile up points by getting inside and scoring with body punches and occasional shots to the head. By the end of the 10th round the fight, as so many of Ali’s later fights, would be seen as even. Then Ali would get back up on his toes and resume where he left off in the early rounds. Circling left, flicking out that jab, then at just the right moment—bang—that hard right hand. This is what happened in Manila. Occasionally replayed on cable sports channels it is, if you appreciate the sport and what these athletes brought to it, a joy to behold. In the middle of the 13th round Ali is circling, has Frazier in the center of the ring. The camera is situated behind Ali, Frazier facing Ali and the camera. Suddenly Ali hits him with a hard right hand that sends Frazier’s mouthpiece flying. So fast did it happen that ringside announcers did not notice that Frazier’s mouthpiece was missing until the round was over. But if you look for it, you can see it. As Ali’s right hand catches Joe square on the jaw, the mouthpiece comes out in a line parallel to the floor and goes flying out of the ring. So hard was Frazier hit that his mouthpiece ended up 9 rows into the seats. Hit with such a punch one would think that ‘Smokin’ Joe’ would have been crushed. In fact he didn’t budge, he didn’t move, he stood there on his feet and continued fighting. But the fight was over. In the next round Ali, knowing that the end was at hand, continued to dance and punish his opponent hitting him with several wicked combinations. As the 14th round ended Frazier slumped onto his stool and as the bell was about to ring to start the last round, “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier said “no more”. Over the protests of his corner, he said he’d had enough.

The victory in North Carolina was stunning: Obama bested Clinton by over 225,000 votes. Instead of delivering the much sought-after “knock-out” blow, it was the Clintons who found themselves fighting for their political lives, for the good people of North Carolina had delivered the blow that sent the Clinton mouthpiece all the way from ringside in Indianapolis to Hammond Indiana. The next day the New York Post had a picture of Hillary with a grim smile over which was printed the headline that said simply: “Toast”.

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