WASHINGTON -- It is the subject of increasing backroom discussion among Democratic officials and strategists on Capitol Hill and the party's rank-and-file forces at the grassroots.
The "it" is Sen. Hillary Clinton's questionable electability and whether Democrats will end up picking someone else next year -- someone much less polarizing -- to be their presidential nominee.
At the outset of this two-year election cycle, few Democratic strategists, except perhaps those among her rivals for the nomination, were willing to entertain the notion that she could stumble and lose her front-runner status. But that reluctance has given way to a growing belief in the party that she is now more vulnerable to being overtaken by one of her chief opponents in the race.
"Yeah, I think she can lose the nomination," said David Sirota, a skillful Democratic campaign consultant who thinks Clinton's candidacy is showing clear signs of weakness and is in danger of being passed by Sen. Barack Obama, or possibly former North Carolina senator John Edwards, in early caucuses and primaries.
"Hillary's problem is that her presidential campaign is not about anything but Hillary," Sirota told me.
"If I were her, I'd worry about the Iraq war and working-class economic issues. If she's got Obama hitting her on the war and Edwards hitting her on both the war and economic populist issues, that could hurt her," said the election strategist who helped engineer last year's primary upset by anti-war insurgents in Connecticut that nearly cost Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman his Senate seat.
Clinton's best chance to secure the nomination is to have the broadest field of candidates possible who will divide and weaken her opposition, he said. "But if it's her versus just Obama or Edwards, or both, that's really dangerous for her."
Other Democrats I have talked to lately, mostly on background, are also questioning her political viability over the next 10 months after her sharp decline in Democratic voter-opinion polls.
"To go from 43 percent in January to 34 percent Democratic support in February this early in the nominating cycle is a sign of serious weakness for a front-runner that is feeding doubts about her party's grassroots," a prominent Democratic media adviser told me.
And it isn't just Democratic strategists who are saying this. Top political pollsters are also picking up signals that her eroding electability is fast becoming a troubling issue among Democrats who see 2008 as their best chance to win back the White House -- with a stronger candidate.
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