In the murky world of Hillary Clinton’s undeclared run for the White House, official denials and bland statements are ubiquitous. But, as Kremlinologists did in the Cold War, it pays to monitor the guests shuttling in and out of her townhouse in Washington DC. Last week that list revealed a campaign moving rapidly into top gear, spurred into action by the meteoric rise of Barack Obama.
Last Sunday Clinton hosted a dinner with key officials from New Hampshire. On Tuesday she held one with figures from Iowa. Both states are vital first battlegrounds in any nomination campaign. Then last Wednesday Clinton had a private party with old hands from her husband’s two presidential campaigns, including James ‘The Raging Cajun’ Carville, who masterminded Bill’s rise.
The race is on. Senator Obama of Illinois has electrified the Democratic party like no other figure in recent political memory and the shock is being felt most in Clinton’s campaign. ‘I think they have suddenly sat up and taken notice of this – they have to,’ said a Democratic strategist close to Clinton’s campaign.
Obama is aggressively exploring a presidential run, scuppering Clinton’s carefully laid plans and threatening her grip on the party’s power structure. Her march to power, years in the making, is being speeded into action by Obama’s unexpected emergence, which has blind-sided her close advisers. For the past two years Clinton has deliberately stayed out of New Hampshire and Iowa for fear of stoking up presidential speculation too early. But now the gloves are off. Aside from the dinner parties, Clinton has been hitting the phones to key players in these and other early primary states such as Nevada and South Carolina. In an America caught in the throes of Obama-mania, Clinton is suddenly having to seek publicity. Last week she re-released her best-selling book, It Takes A Village, and is planning some book-signing appearances.
Obama is a real threat. His first rally last week in New Hampshire drew screaming crowds. The week before he had been in Clinton’s home turf of New York City, speaking at a fashion industry dinner, where he pitched himself as a viable alternative to Clinton, saying that the country was keen to move on from the political battles of the 1980s and 1990s. ‘The country is waiting for the next thing,’ he told an admiring audience. It was clear whom he thought that next thing was. In New Hampshire, TV adverts supporting Obama are already running. They beat out the same message – Obama is a fresh face. ‘Believe again!’ the advert exhorts. Obama is becoming a huge symbol of change. ‘People are projecting on him whatever they want to see,’ said Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
It is easy to see why Obama is such a threat. His liberal politics appeal to many of Clinton’s base supporters. He has been consistently anti-war and was not even in the Senate when Clinton voted for invading Iraq. Her hawkish support of the war has been a millstone around her neck in courting the Democratic base.
Obama has a charisma that has many experts reminiscing about the natural gifts of Bill Clinton. Like Bill, he has also positioned himself as someone keen to capture the middle ground. His speaking ability is similarly impressive and he is likely to be a ferocious campaigner. Finally, as a black American, Obama threatens one of the strongest areas of Clinton’s support, especially in South Carolina, which is a vital early primary state and has a large black population. If Obama can mop up that black support, he could deal a blow to Clinton, who is not popular with white southerners.
It all looks like a perfect storm for Clinton’s ambitions. In contrast to Obama, she is seen as a poor public speaker who comes across as cold and calculating. She is also a divisive figure, unlikely to attract many Republican voters. Instead of Bill Clinton’s legacy of charm and inspiration, she drags along his baggage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and her failed attempts at healthcare reform. She is also seen as a name from the past who symbolises the drama of the Bushes vs the Clintons in a country that – mired in the Iraq war – is looking for a fresh start.
But few would dare to write Clinton off. She has spent years and millions of dollars cultivating a powerful political machine which is not easily knocked off course. She has powerful allies in the party across the country and has assembled a loyal, committed campaign team second to none. She also has more money than any other Democrat. Recent filings show she has $14m in campaign cash, compared with Obama’s less than $2m. Clinton’s campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, has amassed a database of hundreds of thousands of small donors that will kick into action as soon as she declares her ambition to run.
Some experts believe Obama’s emergence may help Clinton. It is taking away the media heat from her, and they believe that it is more advantageous for her to enter the race late. When she does move, Obama’s flaws may quickly be exposed. He is likely to be attacked for his inexperience and lack of political achievements. He will be painted as the darling of a fawning media without the real credentials for the most powerful job in the world. It’s a contest some see Clinton as easily winning with her greater experience and huge funds. Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist, portrayed it scathingly as ‘Hillzilla vs Obambi’.
But whoever prevails, the real fight will still lie ahead. A poll last week showed that Republican veteran John McCain remains the most likely winner of the 2008 presidential election. The maverick war hero appeals to many independents and is widely seen as being a critic of President George Bush. Whether Obama wins the nomination, or Clinton, or someone else, the White House may remain a distant dream.
c/o-: The Guardian