Bloomberg – By Albert R. Hunt
Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) — To appreciate Hillary Clinton’s fundamental political problem, consider the 11 Democrats from Philadelphia who gathered last week to discuss the U.S. presidential race, almost all of whom would vote for her in a general election.
The focus group was moderated by an expert on such forums, Democratic pollster Peter Hart. The participants were informed and enthusiastic about their party’s prospects, had no interest in the Republicans or third-party candidates, and were about equally balanced between front-runners Clinton and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
When Hart pushed the group during a two-hour conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates, a different picture emerged.
Obama, they worried, can’t win the nomination; voters aren’t ready for an African-American president (a point expressed most directly by the two black women participants), and he may not be sufficiently experienced.
A couple of victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would cure most of those problems.
The concerns about Clinton, 60, a New York senator, are that she is devious, calculating and, fairly or not, a divisive figure in American politics.
Those are a lot tougher to overcome.
It was revealing, too, when Hart pushed them to envision these senators as leaders of the country or, as he put it, their “boss.” Obama, they say, would be inspirational, motivating, charismatic and compassionate. After praising Clinton’s experience and intelligence, they say she would be demanding, difficult, maybe even a little scary.
Driven by Polls
Candor and authenticity were repeatedly cited. “I don’t feel like I look at her and see someone who’s telling me the whole truth,” says Allison Lowrey, a 30-year-old human- resources consultant. “I’d like to see her approach a problem without the polls” helping her make her decision, says Andrew Alebergo, a 39-year-old tanning-salon operator.
Even strong Hillary supporters acknowledge the electorate’s deep-seated concerns. “She is walking a fine tightrope now, because she is such a divisive personality,” says Lynda Connelly, a thoughtful 58-year-old Red Cross manager. She plans to vote for Clinton while fearing that, if elected, “the right- wing noise machine is going to do everything it can to derail her.”
This isn’t an anti-Hillary crowd. She gets high marks for her experience, intelligence and toughness; these qualities, they suspect, are what voters demand.
Their hopes and dreams, though, are with Obama, 46. If he can dispel misgivings about his electability or experience, the formidable Clinton forces may be powerless.
Crying Out for Obama
After the session, Hart, who has done scores of these focus groups across America this year and directed major polls, summarized the challenges facing the front-runners.
“Obama fits the year in terms of aspirations and hopes,” he says. “When these voters talk about America today, they want a picture that almost cries out for Obama. But post-9/11, these voters may not be willing to take a chance. They need reassurance that Obama will be ready from Day One.”
Conversely, Clinton, in trying to get to the top of the mountain, Hart says, “has only looked at one face of the mountain — her experience, the emphasis on strength and toughness. She hasn’t recognized the other side of the mountain; she hasn’t allowed voters to see who she is and her personal dimension.”
The Clinton camp has similar research; things are tense in Hillaryland these days.
Her once-commanding advantage over Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire — the two critical initial contests — is evaporating. She has gotten the worst of recent exchanges over Iran and health care.
There are also political strains with her greatest asset and surrogate, Bill Clinton. The former president was quoted last month as saying he had really opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning; he later claimed he was misquoted.
Top Clinton campaign officials were privately furious at the former president, saying he had revived the complaint that the Clintons lack credibility, unfairly tarnishing his wife in the process.
For his part, the former president, one close associate says, has been bouncing off the walls at the campaign’s ineptitude in the past few weeks. (It is not known if the Clintons shared any of these sentiments with each other).
The anxiety being felt by Bill Clinton, America’s most skillful politician, is understandable. Hillary’s campaign is off-balance.
After falling behind in the Iowa polls, Senator Clinton, who earlier condemned attacks by other Democrats, turned negative on Obama. Fair enough. Except her attacks were neither focused nor effective. This strategy raised more questions about her than Obama.
And her campaign has a near-obsession with what it perceives as a hostile press. They were incensed at a New York Times story that reported skepticism about Hillary’s contention that her proposal to overhaul health care would help a lot more people than the plan of her rival. The best advice to them: Get over it.
It’s a good bet that Clinton, encouraged by her husband, is weighing a shakeup, such as bringing in former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to direct the overall campaign. The question is whether it’s too late and too awkward before those first contests, which are to be held in 3 1/2 weeks.
Plan A Failing
The Clinton organization had a clear plan A: It envisioned the candidate, as the choice of the party establishment and natural heir to the presidency, to so dominate 2007 that she would be able to corner, not have to capture, the nomination. It worked perfectly for most of the year.
The strategy has imploded. In a similar situation, Bill Clinton would have changed plans on a dime — he could have gone from B to E during a rest stop.
Hillary has all the strengths cited by those Philadelphia Democrats and much more discipline than her husband. If she can’t adjust and rise to this challenge, however, she may well finish third in the Iowa caucuses and lose to Obama in New Hampshire. In the past 30 years, no candidate has lost both these tests and won the nomination.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.)
To contact the writer of this column: Albert R. Hunt in Washington at.