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Lessons for the Front-Runner

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, December 7, 2007

One assumes that Hillary Clinton and her inner circle are rethinking their new strategy of singling out Barack Obama and attacking him on issues of experience, ambition and character. Of course, the first thing a rookie reporter learns is that one should never assume anything; if people were predictable, there would be no news. So maybe the self-inflicted bloodletting will continue.

Clinton was doing fine in the role of presumptive nominee -- serene of mind, generous of spirit, miles above the fray. Her authoritative voice and presidential bearing telegraphed that Obama, John Edwards and the rest of the Democratic contenders were all, essentially, just members of her supporting cast. It was only natural that they would attack her, since she was so far ahead in the polls. To respond in kind would have been beneath her.

But when those polls began to tighten -- as was practically inevitable, given how big Clinton's lead has been -- the Clinton campaign made two decisions that I'm still trying to figure out. Both seem risky, if not rash, and so far neither is really working.

The first was to elevate Obama to the role of co-star. Granted, this reflects the reality of the contest -- Obama is the one who's gaining on Clinton. The daily Rasmussen Reports tracking poll said yesterday that 33 percent of Democrats nationwide support Clinton and 26 percent support Obama. For most of the campaign, Clinton has enjoyed double-digit leads.

But she's still ahead by seven points, which would generally be considered a comfortable lead -- less comfortable when it's shrinking than when it's growing, to be sure, but still a big hill for Obama to climb. And in Iowa, the state that goes first, Edwards could still win or finish second in what remains a fluid three-way contest.

Clinton's decision to concentrate her fire on Obama threatens to turn him into the anti-Clinton. No candidate with negative ratings as high as Clinton's has an interest in signaling to voters who don't like her that there's one candidate to whom they might want to rally.

Even more questionable is the way the Clinton campaign has decided to go after Obama. "You decide which makes more sense," Clinton told a crowd in Iowa, "entrust our country to someone who is ready on day one . . . or to put America in the hands of someone with little national or international experience, who started running for president the day he arrived in the U.S. Senate."

Polls show that the "experience" issue has been working very much in Clinton's favor. As long as she focuses on her longer tenure in the Senate -- and not so much on all the years she spent as Bill Clinton's first lady in Little Rock and Washington, accepting credit for the good things he did but not blame for the bad -- her experience is still a plus. If this turns out to be more of a "change" election, though, the experience factor becomes less important.

The real clunker is the charge that Obama is possessed of unseemly ambition. In what seemed almost like a "Saturday Night Live" gag, the Clinton campaign even dug up a report that Obama wrote in kindergarten titled "I Want to Be President." This led Edwards to reveal that when he was in third grade he wanted to be a cowboy and Superman.

No one is going to believe that Hillary Clinton is unambitious compared with Obama or anyone else. And that's fine. Our system basically requires that major party presidential candidates be pathologically ambitious. What normal person would suffer the indignities of a national campaign?

The real problem is the implication that there's something specifically wrong with Obama's ambition -- that he has no right to be where he is, challenging her for the nomination. There's a suggestion that he's somehow a usurper, which allows Obama supporters to charge that Clinton, without using the word, is accusing the Illinois senator of being uppity-- which opens up a discussion about history and entitlement that I can't imagine any Democratic front-runner would welcome.

Clinton should go after Obama on substance -- his failure to propose a mandate for universal health insurance, for example -- and someone should remind her that she's still in the lead. Suggesting that the first African American with a legitimate shot at the nomination is overreaching is not the way for Clinton to stay ahead.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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