Clinton takes to the air and refuses to buckle

David Usborne,Zanesville,Ohio
Thursday 28 February 2008 01:00

It is Wednesday and the "pant suit schedule" taped by a joker journalist inside the cabin of Hillary Clinton's chaotic campaign plane says she should be in "mustard yellow".

But the candidate is taking no notice of the press: she is wearing all black and she is not taking the bait on ever throwing in the towel.

It is only a short flight from Cleveland, the site of Tuesday night's fractious debate with Barack Obama, to Columbus, Ohio, but Mrs Clinton wants to be sure we get it right about Tuesday's clash. "I was very pleased," she commented, reporters clambering down the economy section to hear her.

We shall see if the voters agree next Tuesday, when in Ohio – as in Texas – they get their chance to choose between the rivals for the Democratic nomination. If she feels the need to spin her own performance at 25,000ft (more like 100ft before she sits down again) it is because it's very tight.

But on Hill Force One yesterday (her nickname), she was having none of the reporter asking if she would withdraw if she loses both states next Tuesday. "I don't think about it like that," she says smiling resolutely. "I am doing everything anything I can to win. I am working hard every day.

"Everything" means travelling onward yesterday to a Hillary "Economic Summit" attended by business leaders in Zanesville, Ohio, an hour east of Columbus, a town like so many in other states depressed by job losses. And it has meant going negative against Mr Obama.

Certainly it was a far more combative Mrs Clinton on the stage of Cleveland State University on Tuesday night. She complained repeatedly about Mr Obama's tactics, notably accusing him of distorting her positions on free trade and healthcare reform in ways that "have been very disturbing to me".

She bleated a bit too about the press and the fact that somehow she had to answer every difficult debate question first. Alluding to a skit on a weekend television show showing journalists fawning over Mr Obama, she then added: "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."

A few in the hall booed. And while Mrs Clinton repeatedly risked erring into peevishness, her debating opponent set an entirely even tone, smiling, resting his head on his hands, taking notes and listening intently. It was a frustrated Clinton versus a completely composed Mr Obama.

He declined to challenge Mrs Clinton about the origin of a photograph circulated in recent days of him in Somali traditional clothing, saying only that it "was something we can set aside". And while insisting that the Clinton camp had equally mischaracterised some of his positions, he said: "We haven't whined about it, because I understand that's the nature of campaigns."

So no knock-out punch from Hillary, which many said she needed. So what about that, we want to know in the snow-driven skies of Ohio. "That's a prize fight, not a debate," she retorted.

The pressure on Mrs Clinton now may be huge, but she refuses to show it. "What I feel is that a lot of people are turning to the big questions, who is going to be the best commander-in-chief, who they want answering the phone at 3am in the White House."

Even as we dip perilously to the snowy airfield of Columbus, she doesn't stop. ("Can we sit down NOW, please," her secret service detail mouths.)

But remember that aircraft that got off the ground from Cleveland so much faster than ours, never mind the blizzard? Yup, it was Mr Obama's.

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