Some Democrats are beginning to doubt Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's electability in 2008, and they are saying so publicly for the first time.
The New York liberal, who is far ahead of her rivals for the Democratic nomination in all the polls, is the most polarizing figure in American politics. Half the voters polled said they'd support her if, as expected, she becomes a candidate, but the other half said they couldn't vote for her under any circumstances.
Her inability to reach out to more moderate voters worries Democrats who think '08 is their year to win back the White House if their party picks a candidate who can appeal to a broader electorate. Some think she has already "peaked too soon" and will gradually see her support erode.
"Hillary Clinton is going to be a formidable opponent because she is able to raise more money," said former Iowa Democratic Party chairman Rob Tully. "But does that make you a winner? Ask Howard Dean. He was raising more money than you can imagine but ended up doing poorly in '04.
"In the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats really look at electability and quite frankly she is running against herself," said Tully, a veteran party operative who has just stepped down from the chairman's post. "She's got name recognition, popularity among Democrats, but the test will be whether she can beat the image problem, the perception out there that she is not electable among the general electorate," he told me.
Electability, he said, emphasizing the point, "is the big issue out here" among Iowa Democrats who will hold the nation's first candidate caucuses in January of '08. "Quite frankly, the Democrats, as we saw in Bill Clinton's nomination in 1992, do not want to let this chance slip by in 2008 when we think we have a great opportunity to win back the presidency. Iowa Democrats are going to concentrate on getting the best candidate we can get elected." Democrats have raised Tully's concerns for months in private discussions, but this is the first time a prominent official is willing to address it publicly and that could be Clinton's undoing.
Clinton's electability was one of the key weaknesses in a national WNBC/Marist poll released Dec. 7 that found she "has much more convincing to do among a general electorate that is divided over whether they want to see her in the race," said Dr. Lee M. Miringoff, the survey's director. "Most voters feel her electability is not an issue in deciding their vote, although a significant proportion of Democrats voice at least some concern," Miringoff said in an analysis of his findings.
Other Democrats question whether she has "growing room" as a candidate, both in the primaries and the general election.