In the blur of race and gender politics that dominated the past week in the Democratic race -- and amid some presidential top-blowing and that pesky challenge from Uncommitted -- it's easy to miss the subtle efforts at political definition that Camp Clinton is seeking to pull off in these uncertain days between contests.
Slowly but surely, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is putting together a precise critique of Sen. Barack Obama's political brand. In drawing contrasts in her post-New Hampshire "voice," she's trying to own some of the best he has to offer -- his personality, his message of change, and (most broadly) the sense that he's in tune with the mood and needs of the country -- while raising repeated questions about Obama's ability to lead.
It's this Hillary Clinton who is taking a recent Obama quote -- "I'm not an operating officer" -- and trying to make it famous. "A president can't just talk about the problems we face -- a president has to deliver solutions," she said Wednesday in Nevada, per ABC's Kate Snow.
"So I will be a hands-on manager holding every part of our government fully accountable to the taxpaying citizens."
The message gains resonance as the economy loses steam. Dialing it up a bit, Clinton said, "George Bush assured us he could run the government by surrounding himself with the best people. And look what has happened."
The New York Daily News' Michael Saul and Michael McAuliff: "Camp Clinton believes the argument plays into its key critique of Obama: He is a 'talker' and not a 'doer.' "
It's this Hillary Clinton who played flight attendant about "Hill-Force One" Wednesday night -- a candidate comfortable in her own skin. "FAA regulations prohibit the use of any cell phones, blackberries and/or wireless devices that may be used to transmit a negative story about me," Clinton told traveling reporters over the intercom, per ABC's Eloise Harper. "We know you have choices when you fly, and so we are grateful that you chose the plane with the most experienced candidate."
And it's this Hillary Clinton who is playing the role of insurgent -- at least, in her husband's telling of the campaign's tales. "In this case, the establishment organization is with him and the insurgents are with her," former President Bill Clinton said about the landscape in Nevada, per ABC's Jake Tapper. He's standing up for the little guy in weighing in in favor of the union lawsuit that seeks a last-minute change to the Nevada caucus system -- a change that would keep thousands of potential caucus-goers from participating: "This is a one-man, one-vote country," President Clinton told a San Francisco TV reporter. "You should be offended by this."
It's Clinton's search for the "right personality to help her connect emotionally with voters -- an intuitive talent of her chief competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama -- while also emphasizing her competence and experience," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.
This is far more delicate than trotting out surrogates -- or the candidate herself -- to say (or even strongly suggest) that Obama is unelectable, too green to be president.
But there's a growing realization in both the Obama and Clinton campaigns that this contest is very possibly going beyond Feb. 5. In that context, Clinton has little chance of blowing Obama out of the water -- but in a campaign that could turn on delegate counts, the margins matter.