WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton remained unbowed Sunday following her landslide loss to Barack Obama in the South Carolina primary, dismissing any notion of Obama as a political phenomenon and vowing that husband Bill Clinton would remain a vivid presence on the campaign trail.
While some view Obama's victory as a sign that his popularity will attract a new generation of voters bent on ending the politics of the past, Clinton noted in a phone interview with McClatchy Newspapers that the early contests had been basically evenly split.
"We've had five elections," Clinton said, referring to the contests so far. "People have had a chance to express their feelings. We've each won two, and I won Michigan. It's a step-by-step process."
The Michigan primary was essentially uncontested, as candidates vowed not to campaign there because the state broke party rules by moving its primary to Jan. 15. No delegates were chosen, and only Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel joined Clinton on the ballot.
Clinton said she and Obama "both have brought people into the process" in part because of the "pent-up hope and anxiety and insecurity that has built up" among Democrats after nearly eight years of the Bush Administration.
"That's all really important. We want to have as many people involved as possible," Clinton said. "But the real question is, who would be the best president from day one?"
So she said she'd continue her heavy focus on policy issues and experience in the remaining days before Feb. 5, when 22 states will choose about 1,700 delegates. Campaign aides have said they believe the teetering economy will play to Clinton's strengths.
Among the challenges facing the Clinton campaign is how to deploy her husband. Bill Clinton spent more time campaigning in South Carolina than his wife did, and his presence became a flashpoint over whether he went too far in criticizing Obama. Exit polls showed Clinton may have harmed his wife's effort: Six in 10 voters said Bill Clinton's campaigning was important in determining how they voted, and Obama won them over Hillary Clinton, 47 percent to 38 percent.
Hillary Clinton said the former president wasn't an issue for her campaign.
"He'll continue to support me and give me all kinds of good ideas," Clinton said of her husband's role. "I'm looking forward to him helping cover the country over the next 10 days."
Asked if she would give her husband any guidance, Clinton said: "He understands the importance of keeping focused on what the issues are."
In the interview, Clinton mentioned several times that Florida's Democratic primary is Tuesday.
Like Michigan, no delegates will be chosen because the state broke party rules by moving its primary up, and none of the Democratic candidates campaigned there.
But Clinton leads in polls there and is scheduled to be in the state after the balloting ends Tuesday, which is allowed under the rules. Fundraising in the state is allowed too, and Clinton spoke from Sarasota, where she had gone for a fundraiser.
The Clinton campaign clearly hopes publicity from a win in Florida — even though no delegates are at stake — will help blunt any bounce Obama has received from his hefty win in South Carolina.
Clinton said she would break from the campaign trail to return to Washington Monday. She said she planned to vote to block a bill to extend the expansion of electronic eavesdropping powers because it provides immunity for phone companies in lawsuits arising from the companies' surveillance help to the federal government. President Bush has demanded Congress pass the bill by Friday and is expected to push for it in his State of the Union address.
Bush also is expected to urge the Senate to pass the economic stimulus bill he agreed to with House leaders last week. Clinton said she'd like to see changes made to the package because she, like many Senate Democrats, thinks it doesn't go far enough.
But Senate rules may prevent those changes, and Clinton predicted Washington would have to provide more help down the road.
"I think we'll have to come back and deal with unemployment compensation, food stamps, fiscal relief for the states," Clinton said.