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.
"I think the question is, as Clinton continues to grow her support, has she already topped off? Has she already reached her maximum level of support in the Democratic primaries?" said Bud Jackson, a Democratic media consultant. Jackson, who produced a TV video touting Sen. Barack Obama's possible candidacy for the "Draft Obama" committee, said that, although Obama "is far less known than Hillary, he still has room to grow his support.
"All these candidates who are not Hillary, if some of them drop out, as they will, many Democrats conclude their support will go to someone other than Hillary," he said.
The national polls all show Clinton with a significant lead (39 percent in the Washington Post poll) over a large field of challengers, with Obama in second place at 17 percent, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 12 percent and Al Gore at 10 percent.
But many Democrats dismiss her lead at this point as "mostly name recognition" and they point to what happened to then-frontrunner Dean when his '04 candidacy imploded in Iowa.
"Any Democrat who perceives themselves as the frontrunner is vulnerable because in a primary anything can happen and oftentimes does," said Ohio Democratic chairman Chris Redfern.
The early lineup in Iowa gives us an advance peek at what can happen to Clinton's frontrunner status when Democrats prepare to caucus a year from now. Edwards leads the pack, followed by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Obama and Clinton, Tully told me.
Edwards, who sees Iowa as Clinton's undoing, has been building his campaign organization there ever since he came in second to Sen. John Kerry in 2004. A win in Iowa would give him momentum going into the Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19, where he has strong labor backing, and in New Hampshire three days later. But if Obama gets into the race, "it's going to make it more difficult for Hillary because, to be successful, she needs a large percentage of the African-American vote and I'm not sure that would happen with Barack in the race," Tully said.
You can't count Clinton out, of course, but the word among Democrats here is she has a lot of obstacles to overcome before she can become her party's nominee.