WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton's quest for the Democratic presidential nomination began with an air of inevitability and ended with the inevitable reality that she could never make up the ground she lost to Barack Obama through a series of miscalculations and wrong turns by her campaign.
As Clinton bowed out of the presidential sweepstakes, a number of campaign staffers and confidants close to the New York senator offered a postmortem on a campaign that started with $133 million war chest but ended millions in the red, that won the big state primaries but scoffed at delegate-rich caucus contests, that didn't have a Plan B after the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests failed to secure her nomination, that misread a country's mood and underestimated her young, upstart rival and his message of change.
"He measured the mood of the country; our message did not resonate, Barack's did," said one Clinton campaign official, who like others interviewed requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about why their candidate lost. "His message was at 30,000 feet; ours was at 5,000 feet. We had a much better candidate than we did a campaign."
Clinton herself had a hand in her loss, however. A candidate who claimed to be ready on Day One committed several gaffes on the stump. Her exaggerated claim of visiting Bosnia under sniper fire and her comment about her appeal to hardworking white people raised eyebrows and reinforced her already high negatives.
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Some early decisions seemed to seal Clinton's fate. First was the strategy to run her as an incumbent, a White House insider with a firm grasp of the nuts and bolts of policy.
Several Clinton staffers and associates said, in hindsight, that they should have run a more traditional campaign that introduced the candidate to the public — personally and politically — instead of assuming that voters already knew everything about her.
They almost universally blame Mark Penn, Clinton's former chief campaign strategist, for advocating the strategy and misreading voters' desire for a fresh face in the White House.
A longtime Clinton confidant joined the Penn pile-on, saying that Penn ignored Clinton's biography early in the campaign in favor of pushing her as the inevitable Democratic nominee.
"People don't want to be told, 'This is your nominee,' " the insider said. "He (Penn) had all these charts and graphs and polls that showed Obama wasn't going anywhere. He was wrong. He (Penn) is not the favorite of many people, and I'm one of them."
Clinton began talking more about her life story midway into the primary season, emphasizing her middle-class upbringing in suburban Chicago and her father's northeastern Pennsylvania roots.
"It was a general election campaign strategy, not a primary campaign strategy," the confidant said. "It's better to run someone who's not in the lead. People are all over the place with him (Penn)."
Several Clinton campaign staffers said they were slow to shift from the incumbent strategy because of what they said was poor management by former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle.
"Who was really running things? I don't believe it was Bill Clinton, and it wasn't Patti Solis Doyle," a Clinton campaign insider said. "We knew what her role was: She was an administrator, not a political strategist."
Doyle, who served in the White House as Hillary Clinton's scheduler, didn't — or couldn't — keep Clinton's strong-willed brain trust in line, according to some campaign staffers.
Some also pointed fingers at Doyle, along with Penn, for not having a campaign strategy that extended beyond the Super Tuesday primaries after the multi-state contests failed to knock out Obama.
Clinton's campaign limped along after Feb. 5, low on money and ill-prepared for many of the states with contests after Super Tuesday.
"The campaign manager — Patti Solis Doyle — was incapable of organizing the campaign," the staffer said. "There are a lot of strong personalities here: Penn, Harold Ickes, Mandy Grunwald. Patti was MIA (missing in action) in a lot of meetings here."
Maggie Williams, a longtime Clinton friend who served as her chief of staff in the White House, replaced Doyle in February, but some Clinton supporters said the switch might have been too late.
"We'd be in better shape if Maggie were here from the beginning," the Clinton campaign official said. "We would have pulled the trigger on our message earlier. It would have been a difference between night and day."
Williams managed to instill discipline in the campaign quickly, and she infused it with a sense of purpose, staffers said.
She also scrambled to improve the campaign's ground game in the post-Feb. 5 primary states, quickly opening offices and hiring staff members to counter Obama forces that were already there.
The switch in managers, however, was unable to overcome what some Clinton staffers called perhaps the campaign's most egregious blunder: dismissing the caucus states.
The Clinton camp thought that caucuses were attended by an elite few Democrats who didn't reflect the will of regular voters. Obama, on the other hand, had a caucus strategy that helped him rack up delegates.
"They kept pooh-poohing them, Ickes and (Clinton campaign chairman Terry) McAuliffe," the campaign insider said. " 'Caucus states don't represent the people.' Hell, they had delegates, didn't they?"
The most damaging caucus state was Iowa, the insider said, because Obama's victory in a predominantly white state convinced African-American voters who were still deciding between Obama and Clinton that he could win the nomination.
Some campaign officials expressed mixed feelings about whether former President Clinton helped or hurt his wife's chances. Bill Clinton, at times, chastised Obama, the news media and younger voters on the campaign trail.
He outraged many African-Americans nationwide with what they viewed as attempts to inject race into the campaign, particularly during the South Carolina primary. Many thought that he tried to minimize Obama's victory in the Palmetto State by noting that Jesse Jackson had won the state when he ran for president.
The campaign eventually started dispatching the former president only to small towns and out-of-the-way venues. "He made some mistakes sometimes and said things he shouldn't say," said the Clinton campaign official, who still thinks that deploying Bill Clinton was a good move. "He never meant anything malicious against Barack Obama, but he believes his wife would make a better president."
The campaign insider said that, in retrospect, perhaps it was a mistake to have the former president and his wife appear together at some events.
"We felt it would help to show them as a couple — Bill and Hillary," the insider said. "But some people thought of them as 'The Clintons,' and not about her on her own."
In the end, though, Clinton's campaign failed to recognize — or accept — Obama's candidacy as something special that was appealing to younger voters and increasing African-American voter participation in record numbers.
"As the campaign progressed, several people called it (Obama's campaign) a movement, a phenomenon," the Clinton campaign official said. "We just underestimated that sort of phenomenon."
"When he talked, there was no there there as it relates to traditional politics. But that's not what people wanted to hear," the official continued, still unconvinced that Obama was the better candidate. "We were talking specifics and experience, but people didn't want to hear it: They wanted to hear change."