Clinton campaign aide Ickes stays optimistic

At a Monitor breakfast, Harold Ickes defended Clinton's presidential prospects but also hinted she will make a decision after March 4.

WASHINGTON - In a vigorous defense of Hillary Rodham Clinton's prospects as a presidential candidate, campaign adviser Harold Ickes sought to halt what he calls the "rush to judgment" to end the Democratic nomination race in favor of Barack Obama.

Mr. Ickes's evidence: There are still 16 states and territories that have not held their nominating contests. There remain 981 pledged delegates that have yet to be selected, which is 48 percent of the 2,025 needed to secure the nomination. And of the delegates secured so far, the two senators are separated by only 2 percent of the total needed.

No one doubts that next Tuesday's primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont are critical, particularly the first two, delegate-rich states. But Ickes sought to soft-pedal what most analysts view as the make-or-break nature of those contests.

Clinton is still slightly ahead in Ohio and Texas, but has been losing altitude.

"My view is based on our best judgment at this point, that she will close the gap as a result of those four states on the fourth, but she will still be running behind," said Ickes Monday at a Monitor breakfast.

Later, he dropped a hint that March 4 will produce a decision point. "I think if we lose in Texas and Ohio, Mrs. Clinton will have to make her decisions as to whether she moves forward or not," he said. He paused, then added: "as she has at the end of every other state."

Still, Ickes was optimistic going forward in a primary season with three months still to go. "We are confident as we look down the road," he said. "There has been a string of losses. We'd rather win elections than lose them. But there have been a string of losses. As in life … there are a lot of cycles in politics. We think we are on the verge of our next up cycle."

Ickes also hammered on some persistent Clinton campaign themes: that she is a more thoroughly "vetted" candidate than Obama, and therefore more prepared to face the expected onslaught from Republicans; and that the delegates from Michigan and Florida must be seated at the Democratic convention to avoid alienating voters from those two critical states.

On the question of press scrutiny, Ickes said Clinton is "fully vetted," while for Obama, 'the vetting process has just begun," especially since he did not face serious Republican opposition in his 2004 Senate race.

Left on the table, however, is the issue of Clinton's income tax returns, which she has said she will release only if she is the Democratic nominee. Her campaign has said her Senate ethics filings are in line with what is required. "We are complying with the law in that regard and we will continue to do so," Ickes said, then deferred to campaign spokesman Phil Singer.

"She has released, as part of the financial disclosure process as a senator, sources of her revenue every year she has been in office," Mr. Singer said.

The issue of the Michigan and Florida delegates remains acute for the Democratic Party. The party stripped those states of their delegates as a sanction for scheduling their primaries early. Clinton won both states and wants those delegates to be seated, despite agreeing to a pledge not to campaign in those states.

Analysts agree that some sort of compromise will be necessary to avoid alienating voters in two key battleground states in November. In Ickes's view, a good deal is one in which no one wins. "Everybody would be unhappy, but they would all agree to a settlement and it would avert … what could be a very bitter credentials fight," Ickes said.

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