Senator Clinton's quietly good week
Less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and Sen. Hillary Clinton is again the one to beat, for the Democratic nomination. A week ago, Sen. Barack Obama was surging, and Sen. Clinton was stumbling, but things have stabilized. His leads in last week's polls of the early-voting states have mostly disappeared, and she remains very strong in the later-voting states. It is that latter strength that makes her, again, the frontrunner.
Sen. Obama might need to sweep Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, in order to build the momentum necessary to overcome Sen. Clinton's seeming later firewall. A week ago, Sen. Obama's surge seemed to make that early sweep more than possible. This week, it again seems unlikely. He may win more than one, but all three will be tough. Senator Edwards remains strong in Iowa, and he may win it, but it's still hard to see where he goes, afterwards. It's not likely that he'll do well in New Hampshire or South Carolina, and he simply doesn't have the money to match the well-funded leaders. To his credit, he's running a populist campaign, but that doesn't play well with the donors or the corporate media.
Paradoxically, the current framing of a two-person race may turn out to be Sen. Edwards's secret weapon, particularly if Sen. Clinton does well in the early states. That would be seen as a major blow to Sen. Obama. That would leave many desperate people looking for someone who can beat Sen. Clinton. That could translate into a surge of support for Sen. Edwards. The longer Senators Clinton and Obama slug it out, the more marginal Sen. Edwards will appear to be. Sen. Obama seems unlikely to knock Sen. Clinton out early, even with a sweep. On the other hand, Sen. Clinton's later-state strength means a strong early showing could doom Sen. Obama's campaign. If I were a supporter of Sen. Edwards, I would be hoping for exactly that: win Iowa, and just hang around until he's the only alternative to Sen. Clinton.
Sen. Clinton's main vulnerability continues to be the target on her back. Everyone loves to demonize her. Her record and campaign tactics are fair game, but neither is substantially worse than Sen. Obama's, yet Sen. Obama continues to be cast as some bold new visionary for the future. As Joe Conason writes:
In that environment, her opponents are not held accountable by the same standard that is applied to Clinton. For many months, both Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards have been tossing out attack lines that they hoped would bring down her formidable numbers. Obama has not hesitated to use harsh language to question her character, her sincerity, her fitness to serve and her capacity to govern if elected. He has reserved his toughest rhetoric for the Democratic front-runner, while suggesting that he will find common ground with the Republicans. That may explain why Obama has won endorsements from a panoply of Republican operatives and spokespersons, including former White House political boss Karl Rove and David Brooks, the neo-conservative voice on the New York Times Op-Ed page.
Sen. Clinton has made some mistakes, and her surrogates have made some very ugly mistakes, but Conason does not see the latter as having been coordinated from above. I have been arguing the same thing. But this is the key:
All these ugly, petty controversies have distracted Clinton from pointing up her differences with Obama in approaching Social Security and national health insurance, which offered a clean, clear way to deter his challenge. Instead, she is apologizing and explaining.
Surprisingly, the disputes that have lately monopolized so much news coverage and commentary have not dented her national appeal significantly. Although Clinton faces difficulties in Iowa and New Hampshire, the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll shows that she has started to recover the commanding lead that began to diminish in late November, after her poor debate performance.
And she continues to poll well in the later states. That means she is, again, the frontrunner.
A week ago, Senator Obama was making his move, and Senator Clinton seemed clumsy in responding to it. Another week of improving polls for Senator Obama, and he would not only have been the clear leader, Senator Clinton would have been in serious trouble. That didn't happen. As Conason points out, Senator Clinton has expanded her lead in the national Gallup poll. She's also doing better in state polls. Clearly, she has stopped the bleeding. If I were in Senator Clinton's camp, I would be worried, but feeling better. If I were in Senator Obama's camp, I would feel less confident, as his wave seems to have crested. If I were in Senator Edwards's camp, I would be wondering why it hasn't coalesced, but I would also be steeling my nerve for what still could be a long haul.