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Gotcha Politics: The Candidate With the Fewest Gaffes Wins

Gotcha. Not.

Presidential politics is harder than it looks. I don’t mean the raising money part; that can be hard, but it’s hardly a secret. The one thing candidates know going in is that they have to spend time coaxing and cajoling rich people; and most candidates, even the second tier ones, are frightfully good at it. They wouldn’t be in politics otherwise.

It’s the campaigning part that looks easy but isn’t. It looks like you just have to go from place to place, albeit mostly cold places, saying the same things over and over again. If only it were that easy. In fact, you have to be careful of every word that comes out of the candidate’s mouth, every thing he does, because the modern campaign is nothing less than a nonstop game of gotcha.

It’s the candidate on one side and the world on the other, which includes not just the media, but your political opponents, friendly and not-so-friendly interest groups, and sometimes even your best friends. That’s why, even though the season has just begun, the mistakes are mounting up: John Edwards with his new house and his former bloggers, Obama’s “wasted” lives, and even his announcement day heater, not to mention Joe Biden’s “clean” black candidates.

The fact that the press loves to blow up mistakes and that most efforts to clean them up just tend to make them worse, only enhances the role they play, particularly in this new era where everyone has instant access to bloopers on-line.

The biggest mistake of the Democratic season so far belongs to Joe Biden, of course, who was planning to run on experience, and on his first day out proved that all the experience in the world doesn’t stop some people from placing a foot in the mouth.

Biden’s half-baked praise of Obama as the first "clean" and articulate black candidate stepped on everything else he said not only on his announcement day, but since.

Edwards, who like Biden has been around this trail before, not only as a primary candidate but as a vice presidential nominee, might have been expected to know that when you’re running on poverty, a 29,000 square foot house doesn’t fly.

“Uncle John’s cabin,” is what conservative Michael Medved calls it. Ouch. Sending his wife out to say that “home” means everything to the family because they don’t have furs and jewels did not make it better.

Then there’s the affair de bloggers, which is simply an argument that there are reasons for independent committees that go beyond independent financing.

Deniability is essential when you’re playing gotcha every minute of the day. Bloggers don’t write the way candidates talk; if they did, no one would read them. Young hip bloggers especially don’t write the way careful, middle-aged candidates have to talk, which is why you keep them at arm’s length.

How do you spell 527? Get someone else to pay them. Was it surprising that you could find colorful language that Catholic traditionalists wouldn’t like on a feminist blog? Is the Pope Catholic?

Then there’s Obama, who despite what was clearly a smartly planned announcement swing, has been spending more time than he’d like apologizing and explaining ever since. Of course it’s true that if you see the war the way Obama has from the beginning, to his credit, there is no reason that more than 3,000 Americans should have lost their lives.

We shouldn’t have been there, Obama was saying in 2002, when most of his competitors were on the other side. But saying the soldiers lives were “wasted,” while technically accurate, is too cruel for a presidential candidate, and Obama had to eat his words. And once you make one mistake, the press – or at least the meanest of them, including the Queen of Mean herself, famed New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd-- goes into high-gotcha mode: how else to explain her most recent column attacking Obama for such sins as not owning up immediately to the fact of a space heater at his announcement, or getting “testy” about reporters focused more on his vacation physique than his presidential proposals.

He’s right to be testy, but wrong to show it. Never show weakness in gotcha.

These early mistakes only highlight one undeniable fact: of the leading Democratic candidates, only one has yet to make a mistake. With the exception of the open mike that revealed an off-key girlish voice, the Hillary campaign has yet to falter.

The candidate has made jokes about herself and her husband, and her numbers have climbed. She’s announced unheard of goals for fundraisers, and the money seems to be pouring in.

It’s not that no one’s looking for her to trip; almost everyone is. But after more years playing gotcha than the rest of the field combined, Hillary seems to be proving in these early days that she is not easily gotten. That may ultimately turn out to be her greatest strength.

Click here to read Susan's response to your email.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless."

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was previously Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System,” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for foxnews.com.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.