Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hillary Clinton Losing Her Inevitability

Today's Los Angeles Times offers an excellent analysis of the collapse of Hillary Clinton's inevitability as the eventual Democratic nominee:

She was a disciplined candidate atop a polished campaign, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is now mired in the most serious crisis of her 11-month bid for the White House, as a rolling series of missteps threatens to topple her as the Democratic front-runner.

The large crowds that once came to see her have thinned. Trusted campaign surrogates have veered wildly off message. And a campaign operation that had built seemingly impregnable leads over the summer appears to be faltering, prompting former President Clinton to amp up his role as a public spokesman and campaign advisor.

Clinton's chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has wiped out her lead in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to some polls. Should she lose those contests, gone would be the notion that she is the party's inevitable nominee -- one basis of her appeal as a candidate....

In Hillaryland, as her team calls itself, the message is that there is no cause for worry.

"Politics now is a 24/7 cycle. You go up, you go down," Clinton told reporters in Iowa on Friday. "I think that's all part of a vigorous, dynamic election cycle"....

More and more, her message is being overwhelmed by unforeseen events.

On Thursday morning, she had to apologize to Obama on the tarmac of Reagan National Airport as they were leaving for a Democratic debate. At issue were the remarks of a New Hampshire campaign advisor, Bill Shaheen, who made public his concerns about Obama's drug use in his youth. Shaheen quit the Clinton campaign later in the day.

The episode followed two instances of volunteer aides to the Clinton campaign forwarding e-mails that falsely claimed Obama was a Muslim, possibly intent on destroying the United States. Both of the aides resigned.

Just as confounding to some was Clinton's own attack on Obama's character. As recently as last month, she had said at a dinner for Democratic activists in Des Moines that she was "not interested in attacking" her opponents.

On Dec. 2, she stood before reporters in Cedar Rapids and did just that. She accused Obama of hypocrisy by preaching ethics and then "skirting" campaign finance rules in the way he doles out funds.

Her campaign released a statement the same day that was instantly mocked. Eager to rebut Obama's assertion that the presidency had not been a consuming ambition in his life, the Clinton campaign cited, among other things, an essay he had written in kindergarten titled, "I Want to Become President."

The ploy boomeranged. Embarrassed by pointing to an opponent's childhood writing, the Clinton campaign said it had been joking. But the news release was still on her website, with nothing to indicate that the reference was not serious.

For much of the campaign, Clinton delivered a positive message that seemed to be resonating. Trouble began with her subpar performance at an Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia, when she waffled on several questions -- among them whether she favored driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Her rivals, sensing an opening, became more aggressive.

Read the whole thing.

I don't have too much to add, except to say that I wouldn't remotely count her out, not even from winning Iowa and New Hampshire.

If any candidacy ever had inevitability, it's Clinton's. While the article reports that recent crowds at Clinton events have been sparse, the decline in interest could be explained by media saturation just as well as a real drop-off in support. The fact is Clinton's made mistakes, as the passages highlighted here show. Plus, Bill Clinton's a huge asset, and he's yet to be really skillfully deployed by the Hillary operation. Not only that, attacks ads work, so while negativity has backfired so far for Clinton, a really shrewed set of hit pieces could cause some lasting damage. A couple of nasty outside interest group "issue advocacy" ads against Obama could do the trick.

The campaign season this year on the GOP side has been very volatile. Perhaps a bit of that unstable dynamic is wafting over to the Democratic side. It's only naturally, but I wouldn't bet too heavily against Clinton at this point.