Democrats are increasingly giving evidence that they seem to feel that they have already held their primaries and nominated the former first lady. Neither national debates nor Obama’s increasingly assertive foreign policy proposals seem to weaken her hold on the nomination. Even Edwards’ vocal and effective criticisms of Clinton's ties to special interests appear to do nothing to cut into her lead. Instead, it just keeps on growing.
Have the Democrats, in their hearts, anointed Clinton as their candidate already? Do they regard the criticisms of her fellow candidates as just fissures in a party they are determined to keep united and focused on the objective of defeating President Bush? Are they rallying around their standard-bearer a year before she is awarded their standard?
The Democratic desire to bring the Bush administration to an end and their desperation to terminate the war in Iraq is so polarizing the electoral process that there seems to be little room for primaries anymore. The notion that Democrats compete against one another to find out, at best, who would be a good president and, at worst, which would be most likely to win, seems to becoming increasingly passé. In a sense, the entire primary process, which has dominated presidential selection since 1972, appears to be losing its grip in the face of a determination to rally around the candidate, even if she be anointed, in the first instance, by the established leaders of the party, meeting, these days, in a smoke-free environment to make their choice.
Behind these developments lies a fundamental fact: Hillary has used the last six months, with their ups and downs, to solidify her claim to the Democratic nomination. Repairing her shortcomings in the early primary states, she has now moved out ahead of Edwards in Iowa and added to her lead in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Nationally, she has added about a point each month to her vote share, moving from an average daily rating in the Rasmussen tracking poll of 34 percent in March to 40 percent this month, an amazing vote share in an eight way field of candidates.
As Hillary tightens her grip on the Democratic nomination, it is increasingly evident that Sen. Chris Dodd and Gov. Bill Richardson are using the presidential race to audition for the job of vice president on a Clinton ticket. In recent Democratic debates, Dodd and Richardson have taken shots at Senator Barack Obama, picking up the Hillary campaign mantra that the Illinois senator is too short of experience to “hit the ground running” as Hillary is fond of saying she is able to do.
Memorably, Dodd turned to Obama during a recent debate and intoned that “you can’t learn this job on January 21,” meaning that his colleague lacked the experience and on-the-job knowledge required to become the next president. Why would Dodd bother to attack Obama, the second place challenger, who is, in no way, a threat to the Connecticut senator’s fifth place standing? To audition with the lady down the stage, to apply for the job of her attack dog when the general election gets underway.
In his own way, Richardson is auditioning, too. Running ads in the early primary states, he is able to boast a strong vote share in Iowa and seems to be moving into a convincing fourth place in the national polls, behind Hillary, Obama, and Edwards. Richardson could be a strong candidate for vice president. In a campaign based on expanding the electorate to include previously unheard of numbers of single women, blacks, and Latinos, the Hillary campaign could well use a minority in its No. 2 slot. For his part, Richardson appears to be grooming himself for the spot by joining Dodd in attacking Obama for a lack of experience.
Perhaps the early loading of the primaries, and the consequent move of the nomination process forward into the first half of 2007 is carrying with it a corollary: The race may already be over.