Hillary Clinton has led in almost every national poll among the Democratic presidential candidates, usually by double digits. She has turned in a solid, self-assured performance in all the debates, has revved up an impressive organization and hasn't made a major mistake under the glare of a media that magnify everything she does.
Clinton is the underestimated front-runner. How much will-he-or-won't-he commentary has been devoted to almost-certainly-won't Al Gore, and how many glossy pages and adoring column inches to Barack Obama, as she continues her steady march toward the nomination?
Conservative commentators like me have especially tended to discount her. We have argued that she'd never dare to run for Senate in New York; that if she ran, she'd be a terrible candidate; and that if she really ran for president, she would collapse under the weight of her own dullness and high negatives. Alas and alack, it is instead incontrovertible that -- in her own way -- she's a talented politician who has a clear path to the Democratic presidential nomination and to the presidency.
She's not a natural, a fact highlighted all the more by her association by marriage to the great natural politician of his generation. If the test of a candidate is whether you would like to sit down and have a beer with her, she will never pass it.
She excels on other tests. Iraq seemed her greatest liability at the beginning of the campaign: She would either have to repudiate her vote to authorize the war, or be repudiated herself by anti-war Democratic voters. But she found her way out of the trap.
1.) She didn't apologize for her authorization vote, thus avoiding a blow to her credibility; 2.) She moved left in supporting a timetable for withdrawal, thus placating her party's base; 3.) She avoided the excesses of other Democrats panting for a pell-mell retreat, thus keeping intact her credentials as a potential commander in chief. This was brilliant politics. She leads in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll both among Democrats who support a deadline for withdrawing troops and those who don't.
Obama's theme of change in the sense of something entirely new is clearly more powerful than Hillary's theme of change in the sense of another round in a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton cycle of the American presidency. She overcomes this thematic weakness with her strength as a candidate, the foremost of which is her -- as she has put it -- "responsibility gene."
In those moments in the Democratic debates that have offered a choice between saying what the pacifist left wants to hear or saying what someone who might someday be president should say, she has done the latter. Her default mode is seriousness, and all her preparation shows. When she was asked in the most recent debate about the possibility of nearly three decades of a Bush or Clinton in the While House, I found myself commenting to a friend, "Watch -- she'll hit this out of the park." Which she did with a joke about regretting that Bush won in 2000.
She was ready for the question, unsurprisingly. Her campaign operation is like something out of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." It knows how to attack and parry and do it efficiently. It is inconceivable that she would ever be embarrassed by her campaign the way Obama has been by his a few times this year -- and if she were, someone would probably get fired.
Obama has generated a lot of excitement. Maybe he will end up swamping Clinton, or she'll be done in by some unforeseeable issue or gaffe, or her high negatives will convince Democrats that someone else is a safer bet to get elected next year. But it doesn't look likely when Clinton has run a nearly flawless campaign and has done more than any other Democrat to show she's ready to be president.
I will never support her, but nor will I ever again underestimate her.