Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Obama may be ahead in the delegate count and favourite for the Democratic nomination, but last week's figures showing that the US is heading for recession provided what could still be a decisive campaign boost for Hillary
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Americans love numbers, so here's a simple question. Which were the most important numbers last week for Hillary Clinton? You will surely reply 54 and 51, her share of the vote in the crucial primaries of Ohio and Texas, given that defeat in either would almost certainly have meant the end of her presidential campaign.

But here are a few others to get your teeth into. What about 63,000, the manufacturing jobs eliminated by US companies in February, according to Friday's monthly employment report from the government? Or one million, the record number of American homes that are now in foreclosure? Or how about 75, the latest reading of the index that measures the confidence of America's consumers, the lowest it has been in more than 15 years? These numbers confirm that the US economy is in recession. But they're great news for Hillary Clinton.

Let me explain. After the latest twists of this quite amazing Democratic contest, the consensus remains that Barack Obama is still the favourite (just) for the nomination, by dint of the fact that, barring an implausible string of Hillary landslides in the remaining contests, he will finish up with a lead in pledged delegates. At that point, all other things being equal, floating super-delegates will follow the wishes of the punters who actually took part in the primaries and caucuses, and throw their support behind Obama. Thus will the Democrats be spared a bloodbath at their convention in Denver.

That, in a nutshell, is Obama's case. But the Clinton camp can make an equally good one. Imagine the Democrats hadn't saddled themselves with a byzantine system of proportional representation to allot delegates. Suppose, instead, they had followed the winner-take-all system used by the Republicans and the country for November's general election. No super-delegates, no "Texas two-step" of a primary followed by caucuses. In that case she, not he, would be ahead.

By my calculation, she would now have 1,738 delegates, and Obama only 1,541. The contests in the weeks ahead offer her an excellent chance of making the magic 2,025 needed to win. She is expected next month to win Pennsylvania and most of its 188 delegates, and must fancy her chances in Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, three states that vote in May. Under a winner-take-all system, victories in these four states would put the nomination mathematically beyond Obama.

That won't happen, of course. In the real world Obama is ahead by around 100. But his high-water mark may prove to have been three weeks ago in Wisconsin, where he made inroads into the core Clinton constituencies of women and poor white voters to secure a victory whose magnitude numbed the Hillary camp. But now, assuming Pennsylvania goes the way of Ohio, Obama would have failed to carry any mega-states (except his home base of Illinois). Democrats must win these in a general election to retake the White House. That has to worry many Democrats.

Yes, this computation excludes Florida and Michigan, whose delegates currently stand disqualified because the two states defied party rules by holding their primaries in January. Both are under enormous pressure to hold re-runs, and will surely do so. In that case Clinton, having already "won" first time around, would start favourite.

Moreover, these remaining primaries will unfold when the Clinton campaign at last has hit its stride. Disruptive and narcissistic Bill is being kept out of the limelight. Clinton is starting to rattle her opponent with her attacks on his lack of experience and general fluffiness. His aides, most lately Samantha Power of "monster" fame, are starting to make mistakes, and Obama's squeaky clean, almost saintly image is being scratched. Meanwhile a major gaffe by one of the candidates, or a terrorist attack or some other bolt from the blue, could yet transform the race. Last and most important, and as exemplified by those scary figures I mentioned above, there's the economy.

Is history about to repeat itself? Back in 1992, the slogan "It's the Economy, Stupid", pinned to the wall of Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, was the watchword of Bill's victory. Today, another Bush is in the White House, another Clinton is seeking his job – and another recession stalks the land. The only difference is that this one is shaping up to be far worse than the minor blip that James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and company so brilliantly exploited to unseat Bush the elder.

Not so long ago, it was assumed Iraq would be the big issue of the campaign. That would have been a huge disadvantage for Clinton, whose vote in 2002 authorising a unpopular war remains her Achilles heel. By contrast, continued mayhem in the Middle East and the need to restore America's good name played to the strengths of Obama, with his record of opposition to the war, and his uplifting message of change, hope and national unity.

Now, however, the economy is front and centre of the campaign and will stay there. Rhetoric doesn't pay the monthly mortgage, or provide health coverage when you've lost your job. Only a minority of Americans, the soldiers and their families, felt the impact of the Iraq war first hand. But a serious recession affects almost everyone. And the pain is lessened not by words, or even prayer, but by the policy nitty gritty in which Clinton excels.

In her victory speech in Columbus on Tuesday night, she got it exactly right, fusing her political near-death experience against Obama with the state's economic woes. "For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, for everyone who has stumbled and stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one's for you."

These weren't just a politician's canned words after a crucial win. They came from the heart. They were aimed at an old-fashioned party constituency largely obscured in the whirl of Obamamania, but as vital now as it ever was – blue-collar, working-class whites in down-on-their-luck industrial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan that the Democrats must win.

Their support cannot be taken for granted. From their ranks a generation ago came the "Reagan Democrats" who crossed to the Republicans in droves. With Obama the nominee, could it happen again? Probably not, given that this is a "Republican recession" in an era of discredited conservatism. But the very thought, the Clinton camp argues, should be enough to give Democrats – above all those all-important super-delegates – pause. After all, it's the economy, stupid.

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