In the days and weeks ahead, the Barack Obama campaign is going to pose a simple question to the undecided voters and undeclared superdelegates who will decide the Democratic nomination for president: If Hillary Clinton can't run a good primary campaign, how is she ever going to run a good campaign against the Republicans?
And while she says she is ready from Day One to be president, she is at something like Day 430 into being a presidential candidate and her campaign seems to be going from bad to worse to train wreck.
Mark Penn, who just got booted as her chief strategist, is only the latest problem in a campaign that has been heavy on drama and light on results.
"None of these folks have ever run anything, other than Hillary running a health care task force," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, told me Monday. "But these campaigns are big, complicated, pressure-filled enterprises, and it is an important proving ground."
The Obama campaign is going to tell voters it is proving itself every day. It says it had a calm and deliberate strategy that it has executed well: Win Iowa (I will write more about this in my next column) and then aggregate delegates.
"Mark [Penn] said, 'This is about delegates,'" Axelrod said. "But to get them, you have to compete for them in caucuses and primaries. We had an army of eager and willing volunteers in every state, and we were able to rally and marshal them."
Penn is a master of identifying subsets within the electorate. He wrote a book called "Microtrends" and talked about such things as "Archery Moms" and "Impressionable Elites" and "Caffeine Crazies."
But Obama has openly derided the "slicing and dicing" of the electorate and has concentrated on one major theme: change. He promises to change the way Washington works.
Clinton has a theme, too: experience. She knows how Washington works. But there is a built-in downside to that.
"In a year when people are rightly jaundiced about the ways of Washington, a strategy that has at its core that you are the ultimate Washington insider seemed ill-conceived to me," Axelrod said.
Three months ago, I wrote there was a risk in Clinton's having Penn as both her pollster and top strategist. "There is a natural tendency for someone who holds both positions to say the strategy can't be wrong because the polling can't be wrong," I wrote. "And sometimes you need a strategist who is willing to say, 'I don't care what the damn polling says, we need to try something different.'"
Penn was not that person. And the Clinton campaign never really tried anything different. Clinton did show a little human emotion in New Hampshire, a state she narrowly won, but then she went back to being an issues machine.
And then there was her vote for the war in Iraq. I don't care what Penn's polling showed; Clinton's refusal to say that her vote was a mistake and apologize for it has seriously hurt her with activist Democrats, those who vote in primaries and especially those who turn out in caucuses.
Axelrod told me that at a meeting in January 2007, a few weeks before Obama announced his candidacy, Obama assembled his top staff and laid down three "predicates" for the campaign.
"First, it was to be a campaign based on grass-roots politics," Axelrod said. "Second, there was to be no drama, that we were all on the same team. And third, the campaign should be joyful. That has really happened."
Axelrod is not, to put it mildly, a neutral observer. And I imagine the Obama campaign has not been all that joyful during the Jeremiah Wright controversy. (A controversy that, I believe, we have not heard the last of.)
But when you are ahead in delegates and behind in drama, it is a lot easier to have a smile on your face.
"It is real hard to win a campaign if everybody is unhappy every day," Axelrod said.
OK, so the Obama campaign is happy and the Clinton campaign is not. So what?
"You can tell a lot about a candidate by the campaign they run," Axelrod said.
And this is the pitch the Obama campaign is going to make in the weeks ahead, especially to those superdelegates who are still on the fence: Obama has run a good primary campaign, which is a sign that he will run a good general election campaign, and then a good presidency. Clinton, the Obama campaign will say, cannot make the same argument.
"Hillary is a bad manager," a senior Obama aide told me. "Does it really look like she could deal with the Republicans?"
"I am not in any way declaring victory," Axelrod said. "One of the Clinton campaign's biggest mistakes was they declared victory months before the campaign began. But these campaigns are a test not just of a candidate's managerial skills but how they handle the vicissitudes of the process. It is a good barometer."