A newly honed message of change — along with successive Clinton miscues — has given Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama a real shot at an upset victory, campaign watchers say.
Add to the mix the latest buzz in Washington: surprise endorsements for Obama by such Democratic heavyweights as Al Gore, Sen. John Kerry, or Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Indeed, Obama’s rising star is a stark contrast from a month ago when Clinton seemed untouchable. Then, the former first lady was outpacing fellow Democrats by a wide margin in the polls with the primaries just around the corner.
All that began to change during the televised debate on Oct. 30. Clinton stumbled through what she called a “gotcha question" on New York’s plan to give licenses to illegal aliens.
Two weeks later, she took heat when her staffers planted audience questions at a campaign event.
Today, he’s atop the all-important Iowa polls and gaining support in other key states like New Hampshire and South Carolina. His “change” campaign is firing on all cylinders, pundits say, and he is expected to post another record-breaking fundraising haul for the fourth quarter of 2007.
His campaign’s message appears more in sync with the activist wing of the Democratic Party: He opposes the Iraq war, the bombing of Iran, and he wants to move a liberal agenda on a bevy of social issues from healthcare to immigration.
The big question now is whether Obama can turn his raw momentum into the far more challenging task of winning the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3rd — and beyond.
Veteran campaign watchers, who for months had predicted that Clinton would sail past rivals on her way to her party’s coronation, are beginning to express doubts.
“For Obama, Iowa has turned from lackluster into a love fest,” the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page wrote recently.
“The Clinton campaign in Iowa is in a panic,” writes The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. “Obama has been closing the gap with women and her ginning up of gender has lost her male votes.”
If he beats Clinton in Iowa, strategists say, Obama’s momentum could be enough to carry him to the nomination. More so than in previous primaries, the condensed schedule of contests in January and early February leaves little room for error, and little time to bounce back from setbacks.
Obama has found his stride in part by eschewing his prior allegiance to the all-positive "politics of hope" and going on the attack against Clinton on Iraq, Iran, healthcare, education and trade.
But he’s buoyed even more by polls showing a sharp increase in the number of voters who value “new ideas” over experience.
"In the whole dimension of experience, which she’s been trying to run on, versus change, which is Obama’s calling card, experience has become less important to these voters, change has become more important," said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004.
Recent polls back Shrum’s claim. According to a Washington Post/ABC News survey, Iowa voters by a 4-1 margin say Clinton is more experienced than Obama, who she says would need “on the job training” if elected.
Obama leads Clinton 2-1 on questions of honesty and trustworthiness. And, asked which is more important, experience or “new ideas,” almost twice as many voters said “new ideas,” or change.
Among men, Clinton runs a distant third, behind Obama and John Edwards.
Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist, says Clinton faces a unique challenge this year: the compressed calendar created when dozens of states moved their nominating contests to the early stage of the process.
“If she does lose Iowa, it’s not like the old days where you had a lot of time and money to recover,” Murphy says. “Obama, the challenger, has money, and she will not have a lot of time. If Hillary loses Iowa and then Obama surges to win in New Hampshire, she’s going to be in a real, real bad situation. It’s Ed Muskieville for her.
“And then this big invincible thing we’ve heard about how she’s got the nomination locked, it’s all over, her campaign’s dividing up [White House] parking spaces is all out the window. Obama could be the nominee,” Murphy asserts.
Murphy also says Clinton never really deserved the aura of inevitability, one created by pundits who wrongly linked her political skills to those of her more talented husband.
“People lump the Clintons together. Bill Clinton was one of the greatest natural candidates I’ve ever seen. I think Hillary Clinton, if I were a Democrat, I would think would be a very good White House chief of staff,” Murphy says. “But I’m not sure she’s a very good candidate. I think the empress has had no clothes on this.”
Still, other political insiders think Clinton’s prospects would hardly decline if she’s defeated in Iowa.
“If she loses, she gets knocked back. We’ve seen repeatedly, this is the Energizer Bunny of candidates,” GOP strategist Mary Matalin told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “She takes a licking, keeps on ticking. And she’s got the money, she’s got the team, she’s got the resolve. This woman is not going to lay down and let Obama walk over her.”
Another big wild card could have a last-minute impact on Obama’s prospects: endorsements from Al Gore, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy.
Gore — the Emmy, Academy Award, and Nobel Peace Prize winner — is far more influential within his party’s base of liberal activists than he was four years ago, when his endorsement of Howard Dean may have actually hurt Dean’s chances.
Gore is unlikely to back Clinton, who has privately blamed for his 2000 loss to George Bush. Kennedy’s machine played a key role in putting Kerry over the top in 2004 primaries. Kennedy is said to be angry over Clinton’s moderate position on the Iraq war.
The two Massachusetts Democrats could also help Obama in neighboring New Hampshire, as Kennedy did in 2000 when he offered key support to Gore over Bill Bradley.
Obama’s biggest challenge right now, strategists believe, is to firmly establish himself over Edwards as the party’s anti-Clinton candidate. That might prove difficult, considering how aggressively Edwards is competing in Iowa and criticizing Clinton.
For her part, of course, Clinton still has several formidable tricks up her sleeve.
She dramatically expanded her Iowa campaign operation this month, for example, opening new offices and hiring staff, and she boosted her advertising presence on TV and radio.
Also, considering how much money she has at her disposal, she has only begun to respond to her Democratic rivals. While she has steadfastly avoided doing so for fear of alienating primary voters, strategists believe she could launch surgical strikes that ultimately halt their growing momentum.
And, most importantly, she has more than a month to reverse her slide and regain the momentum she has enjoyed since early this summer.
Helping that effort: four more televised debates scheduled in December, including the all-important forum sponsored by the Des Moines Register in Iowa.
“He could make a mistake,” Shrum said. “That would help her.”
During those debates, Clinton will surely restate the case she has made for months: Whether or not voters like her personally, they know she’s the Democrat best equipped to beat Republicans.
“They've been after me for 15 years, and much to their dismay, I'm still standing," she said in Iowa over the Thanksgiving weekend. "I'm leading in all the polls, I'm beating them in state after state after state."
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