Monday, December 3, 2007

Going Down? Hillary Clinton on the Defense in Iowa

The conventional wisdom on Hillary Clinton's inevitability has been holding up so long now that her newfound difficulties in Iowa seem especially interesting. Barack Obama's closed the gap in the Hawkeye State. Today's Wall Street Journal has the story:
A month before Iowa holds the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign, a newly energized Sen. Barack Obama has opened a narrow lead here, but many Iowans in both parties say they could change their minds in the next 30 days about which candidate to support.

Mr. Obama's rising popularity was fueled by a fiery speech three weeks ago in which he vowed to turn away from the partisan battles of the Clinton-Bush years. That, plus the surprising strength of his Iowa ground organization, is galvanizing his campaign.

Over the weekend, the Des Moines Register released a poll showing Sen. Obama was the choice of 28% of Iowa Democrats likely to attend the state's Jan. 3 caucuses, up from 22% in the newspaper's October poll. That compares with 25% for the former Iowa front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, down from her previous 29%. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, once the leader here, held steady at 23%. Given the margin of error, the race is almost a three-way dead heat.

But as critical to the outcome is the fact that over half the state's voters who have a preferred candidate say they may end up caucusing for someone else....

Since late October, Sen. Clinton has been the target of fellow Democrats' barbs about her stances on Iraq and Iran, as well as her character and her candor. The attacks were bound to raise doubts with voters and erode her lead. Moreover, Mr. Obama, with the large sums of money he has raised, has had the resources to more than match Sen. Clinton in a state that requires massive statewide organizing, as well as to surpass her in television advertising.

Among Democrats... it has long been widely believed that a decisive win for Sen. Clinton could, in effect, crown her as the nominee. Not only has she long led her rivals in national polls by double digits, but Iowa had long stood as the only early voting state where she wasn't far ahead, though her margin has tightened in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

It turns out that Clinton's attack machine is already ratcheting up the smear mode to thwart Obama's momentum. The Washington Post reports:

With a new poll showing her losing ground in the Iowa caucus race, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) mounted a new, more aggressive attack against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Sunday, raising direct questions about his character, challenging his integrity and forecasting a sharp debate over those subjects in the days ahead.

Clinton has hammered Obama recently over his health-care proposal, arguing that he is misleading voters because it omits millions of people and would not lower costs. But Sunday, in a dramatic shift, she made it clear that her goal is to challenge Obama not just on policy but also on one of his strongest selling points: his reputation for honesty.

"There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," Clinton told reporters here. She said voters in Iowa will have a choice "between someone who talks the talk, and somebody who's walked the walk."

Asked directly whether she intended to raise questions about Obama's character, she replied: "It's beginning to look a lot like that"....

The new Clinton strategy, acknowledged by her senior advisers as an intentional pivot, carries significant risks and could produce a potential backlash if voters perceive her as growing too negative. The Register's poll also found that Clinton was seen by Iowa voters as the most negative of the Democratic contenders.

Obama had the support of 28 percent of respondents, up six points from the last Register poll, in early October. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) drew 23 percent. Clinton was in the middle at 25 percent, down four points from early October. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.

Clinton, campaigning across Iowa on Sunday, appeared to be spoiling for a fight with her chief Democratic rival in national polls -- even at one point describing the battle as "fun."

"I have said for months that I would much rather be attacking Republicans, and attacking the problems of our country, because ultimately that's what I want to do as president. But I have been, for months, on the receiving end of rather consistent attacks. Well, now the fun part starts. We're into the last month, and we're going to start drawing the contrasts," she said.
Ron Christie, at the The Hill's Pundit Blog, sees the beginning of the end for Clinton:

To be honest, I never thought in the first few days of December I would proffer that the Hillary Campaign for President is near the end. To wit, her national poll numbers have been plummeting since she seemed unable to answer a simple question whether she favored issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. She tried to be too cute on the issue by implying that she supported the issuance of such licenses before commenting that people were piling on and that she was being attacked by “the boys.”

While this might sound like a sound strategy in the comfort of campaign office suites, American voters see through such cynicism and posturing for pure political purposes. And now the Clinton strategy has backfired, and backfired badly.

After strutting around the country as the inevitable nominee who had to deal with the nettlesome opponents who were merely prolonging the inevitable, Sen. Clinton (N.Y.) has begun to realize, perhaps too late, that citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire take their role as casting the first ballots in the race for president of the United States very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they have started to punish the “inevitable” front-runner who was awaiting coronation by rewarding former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and current Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) with strong surges in the polls.

And now Sen. Clinton has decided to dig a bigger hole for herself by attacking the integrity and candor of Iowa caucus front-runner Obama. And Clinton is attacking a political candidate for his integrity and candor? As “Dandy” Don Meredith used to sing on “Monday Night Football” decades ago late in the fourth quarter: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. All good things must come to an end.” Attacking Sen. Obama, a fresh face and generally positive campaigner, with the Clinton War Machine will remind voters once again why they have tired of Clintons posturing and preening at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Turn out the lights: After losing Iowa and New Hampshire, the Clinton party will be over for 2008.
The situation is in flux, obviously. The Pew Center has Clinton 31% to 26% over Obama, although the survey's polling began November 7, and might not be reliable.

Check Memeorandum for more analysis. Expect the mudslinging character assassinations to pick up full steam in the weeks ahead. Obama's not going to be able to stay on the high road if he hopes to fend off the Clinton machine.