Unsettled, the Clinton campaign considers withdrawal and sinks in South Carolina

The Clinton campaign is looking increasingly unsettled, and Hillary's collapse is taking proportions that would have been entirely unconceivable a few days ago. And with every new poll from New Hampshire the trouble seems to be only getting bigger. The Monday edition of the CNN/WMUR/UNH poll (reputed the most reliable of NH polls) is now out and has Obama leading Clinton 39% to 30% -- roughly unchanged from the 10% lead the IL Senator enjoyed yesterday. Among Republicans, it's McCain on top 31% to 26%, only a slight improvement for Romney who trailed 32% to 26% yesterday. Huckabee gets 13% and Paul and Giuliani are tied at 10%.

Three big stories summarize the extent of Clinton's troubles today. The most stunning is that reports are continuing that Clinton could drop out much earlier than expected if she does not do well tomorrow. TPM details the debate inside Clinton-land about whether Hillary should risk engaging in a long, grueling (and probably negative) campaign if she loses New Hampshire and sees her numbers everywhere else dwindle as a result. The thinking goes that Hillary Clinton has long been a polarizing figure and she had just amassed a lot of good will in Washington and among her Senate collegues -- and that pressing ahead could threaten that and undermine the viability of a successful career in the Senate (that would possibily aim at the Senate Majority Leader position).

While this might seem to be a very unlikely scenario considering how sure we all were that Clinton would at least stay on until February 5th, Patti Solis Doyle is apparently one of those worrying about the effects of staying in the race, and Doyle is one of Clinton's most-trusted advisers. And consider how stunning the turn-around has been. People were saying Clinton would clinch the nomination for sure if she won Iowa and that a loss would create a drawn-out fight that could even last beyond February 5th. Now, New Hampshire hasn't even voted and we are talking about the very real possibility of a Clinton withdrawal. Talk about the (excessive, too excessive) effect a single state has on the entire process.

Second, the story the media is running with today is the most unlikely one I could have imagined: Hillary Clinton got emotional and teary today at an event with a group of undecided voters. Her voice broke as she told them that, "I couldn’t do it if I didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do. This is very personal for me. I have so many ideas for this country and I just don’t want to see us fall backwards." Yes, it does seem that the criticism that she is cold and calculating seems to have gotten to her; and while she drew laughs by mocking the moderator's assertion that she was not likable at the Saturday night debate, such attacks do appear to have hurt feeling. But remember also that the candidates have barely slept for at least ten days and have hardly had any break from the campaign trail. They are exhausted and on edge, and it is not surprising to see them crack like this. Edwards probably went a bit too far when informed of Clinton's tears by using it to pounce her ability to serve as president.

The incident is now the headline in many newspapers and TV news broadcasts. The press has apparently decided to portray this as a touch moment that reveals Hillary's humanity and ability to show emotion. Just as likely is that Democrats interpret this as a sign of Clinton desperation and defensiveness; after all, voters turn towards those with momentum who look the most likely to win. And combined with Obama's bounce, Clinton's tears paint as clear a picture as possible as to who is up -- and who is on the verge of elimination.

Third, two new polls indicate that South Carolina looks completely out of reach for the Clinton campaign as the black vote appears to have rallied behind Barack Obama. This conforms to what Clinton advisers have been saying internally, and the campaign appears aware that Nevada is the candidate's last firewall prior to February 5th (discounting Florida where Clinton had pledged not to campaign in).

A new SUSA survey has Obama trouncing Clinton 50% to 30%. Edwards gets 17%. Three weeks ago, Clinton was up 42% to 39%. The reason for the change: Clinton has collapsed both among female voters (a 31% swing) and especially among black voters, where Obama now leads by a massive 46%. This might not seem that stunning, but consider that Clinton was ahead among the black vote until sometime this fall when Obama managed to pull into a tie by reaching out to the state's African-American community. But the size of his current lead is truly impressive. A Rasmussen survey has slightly better news for Clinton, though she is still down 42% to 30%. Obama gets 58% of the black vote in this poll.

Republican numbers in that SUSA poll are also fascinating: Mike Huckabee has jumped to a huge lead, with 36% (versus 28% three weeks ago). Romney comes in second at 19%, with McCain at 17%. Thompson who once led in the state now has 11% and Giuliani is fifth with 9%. Some of this will probably change post-New Hampshire and post-Michigan, but considering the size of the evangelical base in South Carolina Huckabee clearly has a clear advantage.

Given the number of stories chronicling Clinton's doom (including this one), it's hard to forget that Hillary is still not out of New Hampshire. A quick look at this morning's polls shows that several of them show an Obama lead under 5%. Clinton could not only come in very close to Obama tomorrow, but it's not hard to imagine her pulling a win by reclaiming just a small percentage of those who were supporting her just a few days ago.

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  • It's not a good sign for Hillary when the national press corps is debating whether the "mist" was staged or spontaneous. What scares me even more, though, is that I'm honestly not sure myself. I've seen the effect campaigns can have on candidates, though not on a Presidential scale, so the emotion is no doubt real. But did it just come out on its own, or did she choose to let it slip through?

    Maybe the scariest thing, and a sign of the current state of American politics, is that we can have a twenty-plus person dialogue with national coverage focusing on...this. I half-expected the coverage to be followed by a piece on the Spears-Federline custody battle. (No, never mind. There's the scariest thing...that I know the name Federline.)

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