Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hillary falls to earth in poll race

By Tony Allen-Miller for the London Times:

The first vote is still more than a year away, but the campaign to replace President George W. Bush in the White House is already throwing up surprises.

Unfortunately for Senator Hillary Clinton, long the front-runner in the Democratic drive to retake the presidency, most of them are coming at her expense.

A brace of Christmas opinion polls has left Clinton with a political hangover after a year that had appeared to cement her status as the Democrats’ best-organised, best-financed and best-connected contender for her party’s presidential nomination.

Despite winning re-election to the US Senate by a handsome margin in mid-term voting last month, Clinton has had little to celebrate as polls from the presidential primary battlegrounds signalled early trouble for her historic bid to become America’s first woman president.

In Iowa, the Midwestern state that will once again open the primary season with its caucus votes on January 14, 2008, Clinton slumped to fourth place with only 10% of the vote in a survey of 600 likely Democratic voters.

In New Hampshire, which will hold the first full primary eight days later, Clinton had appeared to be cruising comfortably with a 23-point lead over her Democrat rivals — until last weekend, when a poll in the Concord Monitor newspaper showed her only one point ahead of Senator Barack Obama, the comparative political newcomer who is considering a similarly historic attempt to become America’s first black president.

Obama’s emergence as a charismatic alternative to the Democratic party’s veteran leadership — and the arrival in the race last week of former Senator John Edwards, the losing vice-presidential candidate in 2004 — have electrified Washington and placed Clinton under early pressure to abandon her cautious approach to the presidency and take to the hustings months earlier than she might have planned.

Several Democratic strategists last week urged Clinton to unleash a “charisma offensive” in the new year to counter the saturated media coverage that has helped propel Obama up the polls.

Clinton has been virtually invisible as first Obama and then Edwards — who launched his second presidential bid on Thursday in the back garden of a New Orleans house ruined by Hurricane Katrina — have been grabbing campaign headlines.

Last week’s Iowa poll showed Obama and Edwards tied for the primary lead with 22% each.

Clinton supporters argued that their candidate’s poor showing — she was also beaten by Tom Vilsack, the Iowa governor who is considering his own bid for the White House — reflected the fact that she was focused on her Senate re-election in New York and did not visit Iowa this year.

Yet Obama hasn’t visited Iowa either, and the same poll found that both Obama and Edwards would perform better than Clinton against the likely frontrunners for the Republican nomination — former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator John McCain of Arizona.

“She’s in a quandary right now,” acknowledged Ray Strother, a longtime Democratic political consultant.

“She doesn’t need to start a war of any kind, but I don’t think she knows how to handle [Obama],” Strother said. “I think they’re preoccupied with it right now.”

Neither Clinton nor Obama has formally declared that they will be candidates, but Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, is widely expected to confirm his intentions after spending Christmas in Hawaii discussing the contest with his family.

Before leaving home in Chicago, Obama and his wife Michelle attended a meeting with advisers who presented a campaign simulation complete with mock travel schedules to illustrate the gruelling demands of the race.

Michelle Obama had previously expressed concern that her husband might be vulnerable to a racist assassination attempt, but local reports suggest she has been reassured by secret service briefings on how the 45-year-old senator would be protected.

Clinton, meanwhile, needs no reminder of the perils of the presidency. As the first former first lady to run for the White House, she is not only a battle-hardened campaigner, but she counts among her advisers arguably the shrewdest political strategist in America — her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

Few presidents have been as adept as Clinton at charming ordinary voters, but opinion polls have repeatedly indicated that much of America regards Hillary as cold, calculating, strident and ideological.

In one Gallup poll last month 13% said they disliked her 9% said she was riding her husband’s coat-tails and 6% called her dishonest.

Both Democrats and Republicans who have worked with the senator in Washington say those negative ratings are unfair, but the challenge for Hillary is to persuade voters — especially in Iowa and New Hampshire — that she can be as warm and likeable as her husband.

“People need to get to know her,” said Doug Hattaway, a Washington strategist.

He said he would advise Clinton: “Forget the press. Forget the politics. Talk to the voters. There’s no substitute for getting on the ground and interacting with people”.

For the other contenders who are hovering at the margins of the race, the main hope is that Democratic voters will prove reluctant to make the unprecedented choice of either a black or a woman in a year when so important an opportunity beckons and Republicans may be vulnerable because of opposition to the war in Iraq. Edwards has already staked out his claim to be the leading white male contender should either Clinton or Obama stumble.

Senator Joseph Biden, who will assume the chairmanship of the Senate’s foreign affairs committee, may throw in his hat as a possible vice-presidential choice.

There is a vociferous group of liberal Democrats who hope that former vice-president Al Gore can be persuaded to avenge his loss to Bush in 2000.

Even Senator John Kerry, the defeated candidate in 2004, is muttering about a second attempt, although few Democrats appear to be encouraging him.

For now, though, the battle is between Obama and Clinton, neither of whom are likely to wait long before paying their first campaign visits to Iowa.

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