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Air Spin One

Hours after Hillary Clinton finished a stunning third in the Iowa caucuses, her press corps flew by charter jet directly to the campaign’s next battleground: Manchester, New Hampshire. For the duration of the two and a half hour flight, the aisles were jammed up as a cadre of Clintonites tirelessly spun a press corps whose members now believe they’re witnessing one of the great political collapses in modern history. (They’re also despondent for their careers: As the caucus returns took shape in the press filing center at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, one reporter had morosely joked that without Hillary to cover he would soon be out of a job.) Thus, like a crew of firefighters struggling to prevent a brushfire from turning into an inferno, Hillary’s spinners descended on the hacks bearing the message that the campaign has just begun.

The first to come down the aisle was press aide Jay Carson. “Extrapolating from 230,000 people is a mistake,” Carson said. The Clinton campaign “always knew” that the race would be decided on February 5, when millions of primary voters will have their say. (The words “February 5”  were a mantra at 35,000 feet.)

Soon after, Mark Penn appeared in the aisle. Penn doesn't care much for reporters and he suffered the scrum around him with a mild grimace. Penn invoked the other key refrain of the night: "experience," and Hillary's preparedness for the White House. Some campaigns respond to defeat by retooling--think of George W. Bush re-casting himself a “Reformer With Results” after losing to John McCain in New Hampshire eight years ago. But Penn’s talking points suggested that there will be no Hillary relaunch. She will evidently plow ahead with the same experience message Iowans rejected last night. 

Penn, the number-cruncher, also emphasized the terrain on which he feels most comfortable: polls. As of Thurday morning, he told the hacks straining to catch his deadpanned observations, Hillary was a clear leader in the national polls. But Penn didn’t say how those numbers can withstand the coming storm of Obama worship that Iowa is sure to bring.

A few feet down the aisle from Penn was the longtime Cinton pal Terry McAuliffe, With a leather loafer propped up on an armrest and his booming voice hoarse and ragged over the engines’ roar, McAuliffe didn’t pretend that the national numbers Penn cited will last long. “I’m sure it’ll tighten.” But Hillary still has fight in her, he argued: “We’re ready to go!”--a presumably unintentional echo of Barack Obama’s famous catchphrase.

The preternaturally jolly McAuliffe is a good man to have spinning for you in a pinch. But his good cheer dimmed when I asked him about Bill Richardson, who appears to have made an 11th-hour deal to throw his supporters to Obama. “How many times did [Clinton] appoint him?” McAuliffe marveled. “Two? U.N. Ambassador and Energy Secretary?” He looked at me, half-glaring, awaiting confirmation. “I don’t know,” I joked, “but who’s counting?” “I am,” McAuliffe said firmly.

For all the spinning, what no one could convincingly explain was what shape that fight will take and how it can succeed. The New Hampshire primary is in five days. Today, Friday, will be defined by coverage of Obama’s Iowa triumph. By primary day it will be too late for Hillary to change the storyline that she is a broken idol. That leaves her all of three days to do her work or risk a catastrophic second loss here.

She has few options. What card do the Clintons have left to play? Hillary has already worked to seem warmer and more likeable, with limited results. Going harshly negative against Obama is one option, but given his heroic glow, it would likely only make Hillary look bitter and nasty--and merely reinforce Obama’s case against “politics as usual.”

Then there’s the media. The Clinton campaign has long felt that the press is aligned against them--the Drudge Report is daily proof of the profit in bashing Hillary. Their frustration is amplified by a sense that Obama has had an easy ride, that the media’s instinct is to build him up while tearing her down. One of the campaign’s few hopes is that Obama’s ascendance will bring a new level of scrutiny--of his preparedness to be president, of his record in the Illinois state legislature. But one doesn’t get the sense from talking to the Clinton team that they expect any favors from the press. “I realize that some of you want it to be over in five days,” Carson said .

There are still straws to grasp. Hillary loyalists maintain faith in her iron support in New York and also California--whose vast numbers of Latino voters are thought to be skeptical of an African-American candidate. (One Democratic operative recently described this to me as the Do the Right Thing factor.) There is also the final Democratic debate Saturday evening, an opportunity to take Obama down a peg--but also the most pressurized moment Hillary has faced yet.

The little old ladies who love Hillary Clinton formed the symbolic core of her candidacy here in Iowa. For weeks her organizers fretted about grannies slipping on the ice en route to the caucuses. But now it may be Hillary herself who, as the classic advertisement put it, has fallen and can’t get up.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.