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Who'll make Clinton sweat?
By PHILIP GAILEY
Published September 23, 2007
Can anyone, or anything, stop Hillary Clinton from winning the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination?
Probably not, although one potential turnoff for voters could be the aura of inevitability and sense of entitlement enveloping her campaign months before the first primary votes are counted.
As a measure of her political confidence, Clinton last week voted against a Senate resolution condemning a newspaper ad by the left-wing MoveOn.org calling Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, "General Betray Us" - an attack denounced by many Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The resolution passed by a vote of 72-25. If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she had better have a good explanation for that vote when the swift boats start circling her in the general election.
Perhaps even more significant, Clinton spent Friday taping interviews with all five Sunday television news shows, including Meet the Press, whose host, Tim Russert, is known for his tough questions. The television blitz was unexpected and long overdue. She has avoided these Sunday news shows for more than two years, last appearing on Meet the Press in February 2005, when she and Republican Sen. John McCain were interviewed from Iraq.
So far, Clinton has not even worked up a sweat in her pursuit of her party's nomination. She shrugs off criticism from her opponents, dodges politically sensitive questions and keeps pesky reporters at bay. Her vote for the Iraq war doesn't seem to have cost her much support, even among antiwar Democrats. Nor has her relationship with sleazy fundraisers. Clinton's campaign recently returned $850,000 in "bundled" donations collected by Norman Hsu, who was indicted last week for his alleged involvement in a $60-million Ponzi scheme. Clinton said she had no idea he was a fugitive at the time he was raising money for her presidential bid.
To hear her supporters tell it, the New York senator and former first lady can do no wrong. She is declared the winner of almost every Democratic debate for reasons that escape me, other than she doesn't make gaffes and rarely strays from her talking points. John Edwards seized the health care issue in February (the front-runner announced her plan, which is similar to Edwards', last week), and Barack Obama opposed the war Clinton supported. Joe Biden is a more thoughtful voice on foreign policy, and Chris Dodd is as good or better than Clinton on most foreign and domestic issues. But they can't seem to catch a break.
So why can't her rivals slow the Clinton Express? For one thing, there are few philosophical differences among the leading Democratic candidates, which works to Clinton's advantage because of her name recognition, money machine and campaign organization.
For all her strengths as a candidate, there is something about her campaign performance that has troubled me. Until now, Hillary Clinton has avoided situations where she could be pressed to answer tough questions or challenged to explain her ever-evolving positions on the war in Iraq and other controversial issues.
The presidential debates, the town hall meetings in New Hampshire and Iowa, and the interviews with local reporters in those key states are no substitute for news conferences and interviews that require a candidate to go beyond sound bites and scripted answers tested in focus groups.
For example, in a candidate debate in Iowa last week, Clinton was asked how she would protect Social Security. After she ruled out raising the retirement age or reducing benefits, she was asked if that meant she was leaving higher taxes on the table. "No, not at all," Clinton said. Her solution: return to the economic prosperity of her husband's administration. That was not a serious answer, it was a pathetic cop-out.
Hillary Clinton may well be the next president, which is why voters deserve more opportunities to hear her explain in some detail her strategy for fighting terrorism or to elaborate on her plan to leave an unspecified number of U.S. troops in and around Iraq after she ends the war, which she has pledged to do.
John McCain's presidential campaign is so broke he had to park his "Straight Talk Express" bus. After her television blitz, maybe Clinton, who travels by private jet and in Secret Service motorcades, will consider leasing the bus for a few weeks, loading it up with the best reporters in the business and showing the world that she can handle the boys on the bus and anything they throw at her.