Is time on Clinton's side?

Even after a big loss in Mississippi yesterday, the Clinton team feels more sanguine about their chances for the nomination. They have the next few weeks to continue pressuring Barack Obama and pushing him into the kind of negative campaigning that will diminish his New Politics standing. And as the primaries move out of the South and into the industrial North, the demographics will start turning in Hillary’s favor:

Mississippi marks the last primary or caucus for a six-week stretch — by far the longest pause in this year’s nomination fight.

That gives Clinton a chance to battle Obama without time pressures that magnify every moment on the trail, allowing her to make a deliberate and methodical case in favor of her candidacy — and against Obama’s. …

But Clinton’s campaign has proved more adept at seizing control of the race when no one is voting. Just in the past few weeks, Clinton has kept pressure on Obama with a stinging TV ad suggesting he’s unprepared to serve as commander in chief; left him on the defensive over NAFTA and controversial comments made by a high-level foreign-policy adviser; and made headlines by suggesting publicly that Obama could be considering as her running mate.

Could the lull help Hillary? Possibly. She did manage to turn the two weeks between Wisconsin and the March 4th mini-Super Tuesday into an offensive that dinged Obama’s momentum. In doing so, she went explicitly negative for the first time in the race, and the shock of the tactical change worked to her advantage, especially as it appeared to wrong-foot Obama into a couple of avoidable mistakes.

She no longer has the advantage of surprise, however. Hillary and her surrogates can continue to hit the same themes, but they will lose most of their impact. Unless the Clinton team can find new ways to suggest that Obama is unsuited to lead the nation in a time of crisis, that 3 AM ad will get very old by the time Pennsylvania rolls around — and it may have more people asking how Hillary qualifies on the issue as well.

What the lull does for Hillary is to give her time to bolster her support among working-class white voters in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. With the South out of the way, the demographics in these regions work to her advantage. Like Ohio, Hillary expects to win significant victories in these states and make an argument for momentum in Denver.

The 24-point blowout in Mississippi will get explained in the same way as South Carolina, allowing for a more subtle argument at the convention. Team Hillary will note that the racial division in Mississippi threatens the Democrats with marginalization in the general election. Obama, they will argue, lost the white vote halfway through the primaries and won’t get it back for a general election. Winning the industrial states coming next will provide them ammunition for that argument to the superdelegates. It promises to make Denver a powderkeg, and the Clintons will spend the next six weeks rolling out the fuse.