Game, Set, Match?

Donald Lambro

10/3/2007 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro
WASHINGTON -- Three months before the 2008 presidential-primary season begins, Hillary Clinton's juggernaut is poised to sweep all five of the major party-preference contests in January.

Despite doubts that she is too polarizing to win in the general election, and carries too much baggage from the scandal-plagued Clinton years, she has pulled away from her top challengers in all but the Jan. 14 Iowa caucuses, where she leads by a paper-thin 2.6 percent average in the polls.

Her performances in the presidential debates have only strengthened her popularity in the party that sees her, warts and all, as the only viable candidate to beat the Republicans next fall and restore the Democrats to power. As of last week, she was leading her closest rivals for the nomination by more than double-digit margins in all of the primaries that matter.

According to polling averages tracked by the Real Clear Politics Web site, the two-term New York senator now leads in the Jan. 15 Michigan primary by 16 percent, the Jan. 22 New Hampshire primary (which will be moved up on the calendar) by 20.5 percent, the South Carolina primary by 11.3 percent and the Florida primary, both held on Jan. 29, by a whopping 25 percent.

Should she hold her edge in Iowa, where she is in a statistical tie with Barack Obama and John Edwards, it would propel her into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries with virtually unstoppable momentum and the likelihood of winning the lion's share of the delegates at stake in more than 20 states that would all but nail down the nomination.

Her near prohibitive leads in the January sweepstakes underscore her double-digit advantage in the national voter surveys.

The Gallup Poll said last week that Clinton has maintained "a better-than-20-percentage-point lead for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination ... since early August."

A compilation of all the major national polls conducted last month gave her an average spread of 18.8 percent over her three top rivals. A breakdown of the polling data further showed that, among Democrats, she now leads by an average of 41.8 percent, followed by Obama with 23 percent, Edwards with 14.3 percent and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson with 3.7 percent.

So, barring an unforeseen calamity, Clinton appears to be on a relatively easy flight path to the nomination over -- let's face it -- a pack of lightweight opponents.

Notwithstanding Obama's eloquence and the popularity of his crusade to end the poisonous toxicity of American politics, his vast inexperience, his empty record and his inability to fashion a galvanizing agenda for the country has doomed his candidacy from the start.

Edwards, a slick liability trial lawyer who managed to win a single term in the Senate, similarly suffers from the empty-suit syndrome. No sooner did he come to the Senate than he spent most of his time campaigning for the White House. Still, the question about Clinton's electability persists.

"'Can Hillary Clinton win?' That is one of the most common questions in American politics these days," veteran election tracker and analyst Charlie Cook wrote last week in his Cook Report. Clinton "is widely derided as 'too polarizing,'" he said.

In the final analysis, Cook thinks she can win, even against a candidate like Rudy Giuliani who has political crossover appeal in the Democratic blue states that Clinton must carry to win.

But some Democrats wonder whether her polarizing image and high negatives will also hurt their most vulnerable candidates down ballot.

A little-noticed August survey conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake showed Giuliani leading Clinton (49 percent to 39 percent) in 31 vulnerable Democratic-held congressional districts and possibly eroding their re-election chances. Giuliani's margin is closer against Obama (41 percent to 40 percent).

In what Lake called a "sobering picture" for the Democrats, she said the poll found both Clinton and Obama "significantly underperforming against the generic Democratic edge." Support for all but two of the 31 Democratic incumbents falls significantly when they are linked to Clinton and her "liberal agenda."

Even so, in an anti-incumbent, anti-Republican, wartime environment, Clinton remains a formidable candidate.

"Which of the states carried by John Kerry would Hillary lose in 2008?" campaign-finance attorney Jan Baran asks. "All Kerry needed to win in 2004 was Ohio," which President Bush carried narrowly.

Even more to the point, which of the Bush states could the Republicans lose next year?

Ohio, now more Democratic than ever, is certainly in jeopardy. So are New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, where Clinton will likely benefit from large and angry Hispanic voting blocs that gave Bush 40 percent of its vote last time before the immigration fight exploded on Capitol Hill.

One way to counter the Clintons' presidential-restoration juggernaut is to challenge them in the Democratic blue states, an argument that Rudy Giuliani will be making more forcefully in the weeks to come.