Hillary's Brier Patch

Robert Novak

9/6/2007 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign hints that agreeing to refrain from campaigning in outlaw Florida and Michigan primaries is a noble sacrifice bowing to party rules. Some of the news media bought into that, with The New York Times reporting: "The decision seemed to dash any hopes of Mrs. Clinton relying on a strong showing in Florida as a springboard to the nomination." Rather, her forbearance looks like a windfall for the Democratic front-runner.

Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who does not have a candidate this time around, correctly interpreted the decision by Clinton and her two principal competitors, Barack Obama and John Edwards, to follow the Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules. On NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Shrum said: "That actually, in a perverse way" could "help Sen. Clinton. If no one campaigns and she wins . . . the primary in Florida, wins the primary in Michigan, that could have a knockout effect."

The Clinton camp is saying, "Please don't throw me into the brier patch." Being forced to stay out of Florida and Michigan empowers Clinton's vastly superior name identification in the two high population states and overrules potential defeats in lower population Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. This poses a dilemma for Sen. Obama, Clinton's main challenger, that key supporters admit he cannot resolve. Obama has also promised not to campaign in the excluded states, but he likely cannot win there without campaigning.

While Clinton's backers trumpet her inevitability as the anointed Democratic candidate lengthening her lead over Obama in national polls, she faces hotly competitive races in early primary states. She is measurably more popular in states where she has not campaigned than in primary states where she has, replicating the condition of Robert J. Dole, the anointed Republican candidate in 1996.

The worst-case scenario for Clinton would trip her in four originally scheduled early tests locked in by the DNC: Iowa caucuses Jan. 14, Nevada caucuses Jan. 19, New Hampshire's primary Jan. 22 and South Carolina's primary Jan. 29. Clinton could lose all those tests (except perhaps Nevada), ravaging her national standing in the avalanche of "Tsunami Tuesday" primary elections Feb. 5. Howard Dean did not lose his 2004 national standing until he started to lose early primaries.

But Michigan and Florida did not want to miss out on the election-year fun, rejecting the anonymity of the Feb. 5 mob scene. Defying DNC rules, Florida moved its primary to Jan. 29 and Michigan then went to Jan. 15, not specifying whether it would be a caucus or a primary. The early states responded that they would adjust their own dates to make certain that they voted first. The DNC imposed sanctions on the rebellious states: loss of their national convention delegates and prohibition of candidates from campaigning there. The word in Democratic political circles was that Florida and Michigan would get back their delegates before the convention and that nothing could stop presidential candidates from campaigning there.

But all Democratic candidates a week ago agreed to follow the DNC rules. Contending that early primary states "play a unique and special role in the nominating process," the Clinton campaign statement said "the DNC's rules and its calendar provide the necessary structure to respect and honor that role." What the statement did not say is how much she actually welcomed Michigan and Florida breaking the rules.

Assume Clinton starts by losing Iowa and New Hampshire after more than a year of campaigning. That could be nullified by campaign-free Michigan, where a public poll gives Clinton a 19-percentage point lead over Obama. Assume Clinton also loses in heavily campaigned South Carolina. That could be nullified by campaign-free Florida, where polls show Clinton's lead as high as 30 percentage points.

What is Obama to do? He cannot set foot in Michigan or Florida before Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina vote, for fear of offending voters jealous of their prerogatives. Nor, his supporters believe, could he slip into Florida for a little campaigning during a gap between voting there and the South Carolina primary, because that would smack of desperation. Hillary Clinton truly has a gift from the politicians of Florida and Michigan.