History repeating itself: Clinton, the favourite, in a crisis

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It was a late afternoon in February 1992, at a shopping mall in New Hampshire, a day or two before the state's vital primary, and Bill Clinton was desperately trying to rescue a candidacy that seemed doomed by scandal.

In the atrium, Hillary Clinton was sitting at a table. A few yards away, her husband was inside a McDonald's, going from person to person in the restaurant, pleading for their votes and promising to stay in the contest "until the last dog dies". Now, 16 years on, the roles are reversed.

This time she, not he, is seeking the White House and she, not he, is the former front-runner who is suddenly facing a crisis. Back in 1992, by dint of campaigning literally around the clock, Bill Clinton salvaged a second-place finish that allowed him to stay in the race, and ultimately prevail. The central question of US politics in this early January of 2008 is, can Hillary do the same?

These may be the four most important days of her political career. This time, second place may not be enough. A second defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in less than a week would strip the last shred of inevitability from her candidacy. At that point all her money and organisation might not be enough to save her.

To win, Mrs Clinton must remake her image over little more than a weekend. Thus far, underpinned by the belief that she was the certain Democratic nominee, she has touted her experience. "Ready to Lead," proclaimed the posters at her rallies, ramming home the central theme of her campaign, that she knew from virtual first-hand experience what the job was like, that she could hit the ground running on 20 January 2009.

No one doubts that. But the formula hasn't worked. Experience, and the notion of "been there, done that," do not sit well with the electorate's desire for change that has swept Mr Obama to prominence. Her husband's presence at her side now only emphasises the contradiction. Somehow she must convince voters that she embodies not just a Clinton restoration, but a new beginning as well. She must also persuade voters to take a closer and less flattering look at the charismatic Mr Obama, of whom relatively little is known.

"I think everybody is supposed to be vetted and tested," she said yesterday, as she arrived in New Hampshire in essence demanding precisely that. "The last thing Democrats need is to move quickly through this [primary] process, so telescoped, without taking a hard look at all of this." And she added of her upstart rival: "It's hard to know exactly where he stands and people need to ask that."

All is not lost. Iowa was unfriendly terrain for her (as pointed out by an internal Clinton campaign memo last summer, which urged her to skip the state entirely). New Hampshire by contrast has a special place in Clinton legend as the place which launched the "Comeback Kid".

But never, even in the darkest days of the Monica Lewinsky affair, has she been tested so visibly. Unlike her husband, her connection to voters is less emotional than intellectual. It is hard to imagine Hillary Clinton in a McDonald's, turning the race around by sheer willpower.