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Hillary the Heir Apparent? Why her Obama-beating numbers may be an illusion

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March 22, 2014: Former first lady Hillary Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative University conference in Tempe, Ariz. (AP)

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Game Changer for Bloomberg

Hillary the Heir Apparent? Why Her Obama-Beating Numbers May Be an Illusion

Is Hillary the Anti-Obama?

Is she the person who can unite the Democratic Party with a passion that President Obama increasingly lacks?

Or is this just a mirage created by the media at a time when the party needs a new figure to lead it out of the desert?

The latest Washington Post/ABC poll makes clear that Hillary Clinton is significantly more popular than Barack Obama, and that, of course, has implications for 2016.

But some pundits are overlooking the peculiar dynamics of the moment. Hillary is as popular right now as she’s ever going to be. She is out of the political crossfire, for the most part, giving speeches and preparing for book tour and looking forward to her first grandchild. She is not subjecting herself to tough interviews or having to take a stand on every flap of the day. Her fans can fantasize about what a second Clinton presidency would look like without her having to fill in many blanks.

E.J. Dionne, the liberal Post columnist, bypasses this question, but he has an intriguing analysis of the polling numbers:

“Obama’s approval rating in the survey was just 41 percent, both with the general public and among registered voters. But in a hypothetical matchup with Jeb Bush for the 2016 presidential race, Clinton was favored by 53 percent of registered voters, Bush by 41 percent.

“The roughly one-eighth of voters who disapprove of Obama but nonetheless support Clinton for 2016 may be the most important group in the electorate.”

So who are these people? They are downscale Democrats, more moderate voters, the ones that Obama had difficulty winning in the 2008 primaries:

“The swing constituency is much more likely to be blue-collar and white — 71 percent of the mixed group are white, compared with only 57 percent of the pro-Obama, pro-Clinton group, and it is also somewhat more Latino. Whites without college degrees constitute 47 percent of the Hillary Difference Voters but only 30 percent of the pro-Clinton, pro-Obama group. In keeping with this, 62 percent of the Hillary Difference Voters have incomes of less than $50,000 annually…

“Ideologically, the swing group includes significantly fewer self-described liberals. Among the Hillary Difference Voters, only 29 percent call themselves liberal; among those who both favor Clinton and approve of Obama, 43 percent are liberals.”

And, not surprisingly. 63 percent are women, slightly higher than Obama’s female support.

But I have to hammer this home: Is Hillary going to have that level of support after a campaign in which she is pounded hourly by the opposition and eviscerated by negative ads? Of course not. It will be more of a dogfight than it appears right now.

Some commentators can barely wait the 2-1/2 years until, in their view, Hillary moves back to her old address. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column, says the Clintons have eclipsed the incumbent:

“Both President Obama and Hillary have recently referred to leadership as a relay race. And if a fatigued and fed-up Obama looks ready to pass the baton early, the ravenous and relentless Clintons look ready to grab it — and maybe give him a few whacks over the head with it.

“Obama’s reign has become increasingly bloodless, and while the Clintons are not new blood, they do convey more vitality than the formerly electrifying politician in the White House.

“Things have now reached the point where it feels as though 42 and 45 have already taken over the reins of Washington power from 44, who is fading Snapchat-fast.”

But if and when Hillary takes the plunge—and with pols like Sen. Tim Kaine endorsing her in advance, it’s harder to imagine she won’t—she will be hammered on her record. And that includes Benghazi.

The aftermath of Benghazi came roaring back into the news last week with the release of an email showing another White House official involved in editing the infamous Susan Rice talking points, and with the House GOP moving to create a select committee to launch more hearings.

But does the controversy still resonate?

Michael Hirsh, Politico’s national editor, unloads on what he calls the Benghazi Industrial Complex, built to harass Hillary over the issue. Hirsh says there are legitimate questions about Clinton’s handling of the situation in Benghazi, both before and after.  

“But these are issues of competence, not corruption. There is as little evidence that Clinton or anyone else in the administration engaged in a cover-up of Benghazi as there is that Hillary ordered the whacking of her old friend Vince Foster. It is a fantastical notion that continues not just to survive but thrive, in defiance of any application of fact, among the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ Hillary decried so long ago…

“Let’s face it: The BIC is here to stay, fueled by a mania on the right to somehow, in some way, validate [Darrell] Issa’s declaration that Obama is the ‘one of the most corrupt presidents of modern times’ and, above all, to tarnish Clinton ahead of 2016 by linking the former secretary of state directly to the deaths of Stevens and the others. ‘Which is Hillary Clinton’s worst scandal?’ asked a Tea-Party affiliated site, TownHall.com, conveniently providing boxes to allow participants to check-mark an episode from ‘her shady history’: Benghazi, Vince Foster, Whitewater or Travelgate. Another Tea Party site went further still, headlining a recent thread, ‘Hillary Clinton: The Butcher of Benghazi?’ and illustrating it with a photoshopped image of her holding up bloody hands. ‘Someone tweets about Benghazi every 12 seconds. Not every 12 days or every 12 minutes, but every 12 seconds,’ National Journal recorded last week, citing the social-media tracking firm Topsy. In the past 30 days, Benghazi and Clinton have been mentioned almost in unison on Twitter, with the former earning 219,325 mentions to Hillary’s 219,163. Benghazi has, in effect, become Hillary’s social-media twin, at least among conservatives.”

There are always fringe voices out there. But no matter how popular Hillary Clinton is today, Benghazi will not go away until the administration provides more answers.

Game Changer for Bloomberg

Can Bloomberg News put itself on the map by hiring Mark Halperin and John Heilemann?

The authors of "Game Change" and "Double Down," who are masters of the inside punditry game, will not only appear on Bloomberg TV but start a new politics site for the company. Heilemann is leaving New York magazine and Halperin giving up his perch at Time.

It's hard to bet against them--Halperin founded one of the first web tip sheets, The Note, while at ABC--except for the fact that there are so many politics sites out there, as well as new media ventures (Nate Silver's 538, Ezra Klein's Vox, the New York Times' Upshot and so on). On the other hand, lots of "experts" once thought there was no market for Politico.

Click for more from Media Buzz. 

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.