Once upon a time, not so long ago, there were two frontrunners in the race for the presidency.
On the Democratic side, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton; "the rock star and the rest" was the title of one memorable National Journal assessment of the race. On the Republican side, it was John McCain.
We Democrats were actually pretty worried about McCain. He was old, but he didn't seem it; what he seemed was experienced, independent, his own man, the one candidate in the Republican field who had the advantage of having gone through the process before. It seemed sufficiently inevitable that old Bush hands, who didn't actually like him, were clamoring to get on board the train before it left the station.
Now, they're facing layoffs. Most of the pundits have already written their McCain obituaries, which in this business have a self-fulfilling quality to them. Everyone has a theory of what went wrong, and the sad part is, when you fall as fast as he has, they're all probably right. He lost his identity, chose the wrong issues to be loyal to Bush on, looked his age on the trail, acted more like a panda bear than the driver of the Straight Talk Express, tried to run a Bush campaign when he wasn't Bush, raised too little money and burned through it too fast.
The bottom line, according to the latest reports, is that he's down to $2 million, and you know, if you've ever been there, that the real number has to be even lower. One of the oldest tricks in the money primary game, especially when you're in trouble, is to record every last dime that comes in before the quarter ends, and put off every bill that can go unpaid one more day to make it look like you have more money than you do.
So if they say they have $2 million, you know they have less; and the less you have, the harder it is to raise more. The low hanging fruit has long been picked, and the smart money doesn't go to the guy who's falling down the well. McCain's story is the old one about the frontrunner's curse, the double-edged sword of high expectations, the "anything can change in a minute" nature of politics, and the "nobody knows anything" reality of punditry.
And then there's Hillary, the other frontrunner. True, Barack Obama, the other rock star who entered the race after initial expectations had been set, has outdone her in dollars and donors, but the reality is that the two of them are operating in a zone beyond everyone else, Democrat or Republican. Barack may have more, but Hillary has plenty. And notwithstanding his financial success, he's yet to catch her in any polls, national or state.
She is still the top choice in every national survey; where she lags, as in Iowa, it is not to Obama, but to John Edwards, who has practically lived there in recent years and almost won last time. She has dominated the debates, demonstrated mastery on the issues, deftly deployed her husband, shown a sense of humor and warmth that some doubted she had (as in the Sopranos video), and withstood the slingshots of former friends (for instance David Geffen) and foes.
No one has questioned her ability or her toughness, her stamina or her style. I've hardly read a word about her hair or her clothes. For all the talk about Obama, and he certainly deserves it given his impressive opening and even more impressive financial success, most observers are still waiting for the second date.
But if Hillary hasn't fallen apart the way her Republican counterpart, Mr. McCain, has, she continues to be dogged by the one question that we've been hearing, literally, for years: Can she win?
The chink in her armor relates not to Democratic primary voters, at least not in the first instance, not to the insiders who have been paying attention to date, but to those who haven't. According to one recent national poll, 52 percent of American voters say they wouldn't vote for Hillary; if that number holds, she couldn't win in a two-person race; and so-- the argument goes-- will Democratic primary voters, desperate as they are to win this time, be willing to nominate someone whose longer term prospects are so doubtful?
There are a number of answers to that argument.
First of all, there are some people who don't like anyone. If even 3 percent of that 52 percent would also not vote for the eventual Republican candidate –- and both Romney and Giuliani had high negatives, albeit not quite as high as Hillary –- then it becomes, as it is for many voters in November, not a question of who you like, but who you dislike least. It doesn't matter if you're voting for your favorite or for the lesser of two evils: It still counts for one vote.
Second, 52 percent can cost you the presidency in a two-person race, but there is every reason to believe that, this year, there may well be three candidates, in which case a strong base of support could count for more than a high negative. Recent polls also show would-be candidate Mike Bloomberg, the recently Republican mayor of New York, drawing more support from the former Republican mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani than he does from Hillary; in a contest between two white male Republican New York City mayors and a female Senator, my money's on the girl.
Third, strategic voting –- that is, voting for the candidate who can win, rather than the one you like -- holds a mixed record among primary voters. Many voters still vote for their favorite, regardless of what the pundits tell them about electability. And when they don't, the results don't always work out the way they're supposed to. Certainly, a big part of John Kerry's support in 2004 came from those who calculated that as a Vietnam Vet, he was the strongest candidate to nominate in wartime. Don't ask them today what they think of that calculation.
Fourth, and most important, the election is not tomorrow. It is well over a year away. If you look at Hillary's track record in New York, what is crystal clear is her ability to change voters' minds, including traditionally moderate and even Republican voters in the reddest part of the state.
When Hillary announced her candidacy for the Senate nearly 10 years ago, she was coming out of a terrible period in the White House. Her husband had been fighting impeachment, and even women who should have been, and are today, her strongest base of support, were visibly angry with her for standing by her man instead of leaving him in the dust. Her negatives in New York topped 60 percent on a good day.
And what happened? Over the course of a long campaign, people got to know her. The real person who they saw in that much-covered campaign turned out to be a lot more attractive than the caricature they'd been carrying in their heads. When the votes were finally counted, she won in a walk. After six years in office, Republicans were hard pressed to find anyone even to run against her, and the much-vaunted anti-Hillary machine never gained any traction at all.
Whatever their faults, and there are many, presidential campaigns, by the time they end, tend to be stunningly transparent. You get to know who the candidate is, for better or for worse. Media advisers can do only so much. Spinners can twist things only so many times. There are moments, often painful ones, believe me, where the candidate is on his own, calling the shots, and his, or her, colors show.
The real Hillary Clinton is much loved by her friends, much respected by her fiercely loyal staff, a woman who is far warmer, funnier, and more human than the caricature that still dominates her public image. And it will be the real Hillary Clinton who voters see by the time November 2008 rolls around, as it was in New York in the last two elections. By then, the question may well be not whether she can win, but as it was in New York, whether anyone can beat her.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and 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.