What now for the Clintons?

Hillary Rodham Clinton started out as favourite to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Then things began to go Barack Obama's way. So where did she go wrong, asks Leonard Doyle. And can we expect to see Mrs Clinton again in 2012? Or will the mantle pass to daughter Chelsea?
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As Hillary Clinton said goodbye to her staff, supporters and fundraisers yesterday, the question in many minds was: how long it will be before she makes another run for the Oval Office?

Disgusted at the unfairness of it all, Hillary partisans watched Barack Obama make his annoying little fist-pump with his wife Michelle on Tuesday, as he claimed the Democratic nomination before 20,000 hysterical supporters. Many in Hillaryland now hope he stumbles in November, allowing her another try in 2012. And if he wins, well, the most fanatical can always dream of 2016.

After a fiercely competitive campaign, in which she amassed an army of 18 million, now bitterly disappointed voters, and respect all round, no one expects Mrs Clinton to fade into the background, even though she seems unlikely to end up with any job in an Obama administration, still less the vice-presidency. For now, Mrs Clinton has little choice but to campaign aggressively for the party's candidate, or be branded as disloyal.

In the longer term, who knows? It could be that, like Teddy Kennedy, her political ambitions have to be confined to the Senate, where she might aspire to be majority leader one day. Some even suggest she might accept appointment to the Supreme Court. It is too soon to tell, but there are those who believe her daughter Chelsea may be a better bet for keeping the Clinton flame alive. That is in the future, however. What is true now is that while "Hillaryland" started out as a cute nickname for the mostly female partisans Mrs Clinton has surrounded herself with since her days as First Lady, it is now a nascent political movement. Depending on how it is unleashed, it could make or break Mr Obama's White House campaign.

But if that is the case, why didn't she win the nomination? Many have a one-word answer to that question: Bill. The two-term former president provided his wife with an oversize set of political wings, giving her a huge head start in the race she has just lost. But his presence on the campaign was damaging. It highlighted the political baggage the Clintons bring with them, from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky, raised questions about what his role would be in a Hillary White House, and emphasised the great divide with Obama: "experience" versus the heady promise of change.

Flummoxed by the tiny cameras of the YouTube generation following his every move, Bill Clinton lost it on occasion, and was seen wagging an angry finger at his tormentors. His outbursts exposed a deeper strategy, aimed at exploiting tensions between white working-class and Jewish voters on the one hand, and the black community on the other. Behind the scenes, high-ranking people in Mrs Clinton's campaign outlined a strategy of defining Obama as yet another flaky black candidate.

The seeds of Mrs Clinton's failure were sown much earlier, however. In 2002, her eyes already focused on the 2008 race, she cast her Senate vote enabling George Bush go to war in Iraq. Later, when the war went bad, her adviser, arch-lobbyist Mark Penn, told her that to apologise for her vote would show weakness. So Mrs Clinton kept her eyes glued on fighting the Republicans in November, and as soon as the primary season opened in Iowa in January, she was punished for her act of political opportunism. Voters were unimpressed that she had backed an unpopular war without bothering to read the secret intelligence that revealed grave doubts about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

For all their political expertise, the Clintons were unfamiliar with the caucus process, whereby voters set aside an evening to debate before dividing up publicly to vote. It's a system that discouraged people with childcare or work obligations – the typical Clinton backer – and gave free rein to anti-war activists. In virtually all-white Iowa, the outsider, Barack Obama, ran his campaign like a guerrilla organisation. He used his experience as an inner-city community organiser to enlist an army of mostly young, anti-war volunteers. He hired one of the founders of Facebook to run the campaign's social networking site and extensive databases. His campaign then blanketed Iowa with these fresh-faced activists, whom the Clinton campaign said would not bother to show up and vote. Wrong.

From the outset, Mrs Clinton campaigned like an incumbent. In her first video effort, she sat in the sun-drenched day room of her elegant Washington DC residence, looking more like the Queen of England than a politician after votes.

The sense of entitlement was evident, as the media prematurely crowned her the inevitable nominee last October. She almost gave Iowa a miss, and while her opponents slogged across the state's icy roads on buses, she darted around in a sleek black "Hill-A-Copter" that cost thousands an hour to charter. That was not the only example of lavish expense: before Iowa, the campaign had already spent more than $100,000 (£51,000) on liveried waiters to serve meals to staff and travelling press corps.

Iowa's flinty voters were not impressed, and they delivered a stunning early victory for Mr Obama, knocking the wind out of the Clinton campaign, which only managed third place. In the next primary – New Hampshire – Mrs Clinton began to deploy what she would later call her "kitchen sink strategy". Her then adviser Mark Penn, one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, raised the subject of Mr Obama's youthful cocaine use on national TV, insinuating that it had been more than merely casual. New Hampshire's overwhelmingly white voters, who view their state as a bastion against the urban decay of nearby cities such as Boston, duly took note.

It still took the famous moment when Mrs Clinton's softer side came out – a tear came to her eye in an eve-of-poll discussion with voters – to save her from elimination before the race had properly begun. Yet though she exulted that she had finally found her "voice" after narrowly winning in New Hampshire, her campaign continued to blunder. After Mr Obama came back in Nevada, Bill Clinton, once known as "the first black President", set out on his own to South Carolina to try and put a halt to the upstart's gallop. Instead, he stumbled into America's racial minefield, mocking the "fairy tale" that Mr Obama had opposed the Iraq War, and dismissing the significance of his huge victory in South Carolina.

This might have simply caused white working-class voters to prick up their ears, but black voters saw it as an attempt to paint Mr Obama as a candidate of the ghetto – and deserted Mrs Clinton en masse. Not only was it distasteful, it was another example of the poor tactics, born of arrogance, that doomed her campaign.

This was demonstrated again on "Super Tuesday", 5 February, when almost half the states held primaries. The Clinton campaign developed an all-or-nothing strategy, spending vast amounts on TV ads in particular. The expectation was that the Clinton brand, with its aura of experience, would deliver the big states of California, New Jersey and New York, and give Mrs Clinton an edge over her rival. But this was a plan better suited to the November election or the Republican primaries, where the winner in each state takes all. Once again, Mrs Clinton seemed to be taking the nomination for granted.

Instead, Super Tuesday was a draw, and when the campaign moved to smaller states where Mrs Clinton had scarcely bothered to campaign, Mr Obama's ground organisation helped him to rack up 11 victories in a row. By mid-March, the fight was, in effect, all but over. The overwhelming pre-contest favourite had failed to knock out her opponent, and the momentum was with him. The "super-delegates" – party apparatchiks whom the Clintons had assumed were in their pocket – began to desert them. Though Mrs Clinton fought on and on, yesterday's outcome was inevitable more than three months ago.

Mrs Clinton can console herself that she has broken new ground for women in US politics. In a country famous for political resurrections – think of Nixon – she may be back. But right now she has to wear a less welcome mantle: that of a loser.