By Dan Balz
Sunday, December 9, 2007
She once was the all-but-inevitable front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, powered by the best brand name in her party, a rock-steady performance on the campaign trail, and a muscular, confident campaign team known for playing hard -- and winning.
Many Democrats still see Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as their likeliest nominee, but all talk of inevitability is gone. No one seems to know that more than the candidate herself. Last weekend in Iowa, where the competition with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina is most fierce, she did an about-face. Overnight, her above-the-fray posture was replaced by the carriage of a candidate who knows that she must fight to win.
Her liabilities always were there lurking, but through much of the year, her opponents watched with envy and admiration as Clinton cruised to an overwhelming lead in national opinion polls, turning perceived weaknesses into apparent strengths.
Because she was a Washington insider who understood the system, she argued, she could best become the "change" candidate. She may have drawn the ire of antiwar Democrats by supporting the Iraq war in the beginning, but she tried to assure them that she could end the conflict more effectively than any of her rivals. Her health-care plan may have cratered in 1994, she acknowledged, but she had learned enough from that experience to make it possible to deliver as president on the promise of universal coverage.
Clinton's campaign seeks to make history, the ultimate attempt to shatter the thickest glass ceiling in American politics. It is a potentially historic candidacy in dynastic politics as well. Clinton would be the only former first lady to succeed her husband as president. Candidate Clinton is cut from a different mold than her husband. She lacks his natural talent as a campaigner and his easy empathy with almost any audience. But she has what he has often lacked. She is methodical, disciplined and always well prepared. In the estimation of friend and foe, she has demonstrated skills as a candidate that they had not expected to see.
Clinton began the campaign last January with an announcement on the Internet. "I'm in it to win it," she declared, and many Democrats said they saw a warmer and friendlier person on the campaign trail than the stereotypes of her suggested. She won plaudits for her performances in the early debates, projecting strength, experience and a command of issues. On the problematic subject of Iraq, she moved left while changing the terms of the debate from where people stood at the start of the war to who had the wherewithal to end it -- all the while preserving her options for a general election in which the Republicans intend to paint the Democrats as weak.
Her best week of the campaign may have come in September when she rolled out a health-care plan to considerable praise -- and plenty of criticism from Republican opponents. At that point she had lapped the field in national polls.
But she could not erase all doubts about her, and now they have resurfaced: Is she too polarizing to unite the country? Is she too evasive to win voters' trust? Is she too calculating at a time when authenticity is prized in presidential campaigns? Is she too cold?
The campaign dynamic changed suddenly one night in late October when Clinton stumbled in a debate in Philadelphia over the question of whether she supports allowing illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses. Though her rivals would later trip over the same question, the exchange left her damaged and vulnerable. Clinton remains a formidable candidate -- "one tough woman," as her campaign said after Philadelphia -- with plenty of assets to deploy in the final weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire. No one in her campaign truly believed that it would ever be an easy march to the nomination -- and as it turns out, it's not.