Clinton's steady march

Going into Iowa, she's the one to beat -- if anyone can

October 21, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --Can anybody stop Hillary Clinton?

The former first lady appears to be pulling away from her rivals in the Democratic presidential contest. Many analysts seem to have all but conceded the nomination to her.

"The only people who are skeptical about it are the people who have actually been through this Iowa and New Hampshire business in the past," says Bill Carrick, a veteran of those campaign battlefields.

One year ago, few would have expected Clinton to hold such a commanding advantage. She'd been booed by liberal activists, months earlier, because of her stance on the Iraq war, the single most important issue to Democratic primary voters.

There were many unknowns surrounding her candidacy: Would undecided Democrats warm to her personally? Was she was too polarizing to win a general election? How might voters feel about the prospect of the Clinton soap opera returning to their TV screens?

Then there was Barack Obama, an appealing newcomer with an outsider image. He grabbed the fancy of younger voters, and the news media, with a fresh style and an eloquent, if rather vague, message of change. The money poured in, eclipsing even Clinton's haul.

Some of the party's most consequential figures -- Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd -- also joined the race. Clearly, they weren't intimidated by the sound of the Clinton machine revving up.

Since then, to the surprise of many, Clinton has consistently outclassed her rivals in debates, run a ruthlessly efficient campaign operation, overtaken Obama in money-raising, successfully wooed voters in the early states -- with her husband at her side at key moments -- and answered concerns about her "electability" by besting the Republican contenders in theoretical poll matchups.

Most crucial of all, perhaps, she has, thus far, navigated the treacherous cross-currents of the one issue that seemed most likely to trip her up: the Iraq war.

Despite her vote for the use of force against Iraq and her support for the war effort -- part of a calculated attempt to ease doubts about a female commander in chief -- she has come to be seen as the candidate best able to end the war, according to the polls, even among those for whom the war is the most important issue.

That's particularly important in Iowa, a state where liberal, anti-war activists have historically played a pivotal role in presidential politics.

Less than three months before the voting begins, what was once a wide-open nomination contest is now looking much less so.

With recent polls showing her gaining in Iowa, Clinton could effectively end the nomination race earlier than ever before, with a one-two punch in Iowa and New Hampshire.

If she wins those kickoff contests, "it'll go like a hot knife through butter" the rest of the way, predicts Tad Devine, one of the party's leading authorities on the nominating process. In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom Devine advised, were similarly unstoppable after victories in the first two states. Next year's calendar, more compressed than ever before, will make it even more difficult to stop Clinton if she's on a roll.

Recent opinion surveys in Iowa, where the race is still very competitive, show that she has become the top choice of likely caucus-goers. But Iowa polls are notoriously unreliable, and the outcome often isn't decided until the final few weeks, when a large number of voters make up their minds.

At this point in the race four years ago, it looked like a two-way contest between Dick Gephardt, the front-runner in Iowa, and Howard Dean, widely viewed as the all-but-certain nominee. John Kerry, who would eventually win the caucuses, was fading fast, while John Edwards, who finished a very close second in Iowa, was last among the serious contenders, with just 5 percent in the Iowa polls.

Writing in USA Today, columnist Walter Shapiro cautioned that it was "premature to write Kerry's or anyone else's epitaph," since the caucuses were still two months away. Then, reflecting conventional wisdom at the time, he went on to predict: "Nothing is likely to eliminate Dean from the race before the convention, save perhaps for a shocking revelation that he is an undercover agent for the Republican National Committee. As for Kerry and Edwards, they are primarily battling for the limited bragging rights that accompany a third-place finish in Iowa."

Then Iowans voted, Dean screamed and the nomination, very quickly, was Kerry's.

The other day, Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, may have failed to convince a room full of political reporters when he said, repeatedly, that the Clinton campaign is taking nothing for granted. But he did offer a telling analogy of the way presidential politics really operates, comparing it to video games where, "no matter what happens to your character, you just hit the reset button and off they go again."

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