By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 6/21/2007 9:14:46 AM ET 2007-06-21T13:14:46

Ever wonder how many times a Mario Cuomo contemplates what would have happened had he run in '88? Or a Bill Bradley ponders how a bid in '92 would have turned out?

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Some years are better than others for certain candidates. Watching the first few months of Hillary Clinton's candidacy, I can't help but wonder what would have happened had she run in 2004.

The Democrats have debated twice and participated in a slew of forums and one thing has stood out: Clinton's preparation. She is, to date, correcting every mistake made by John Kerry (and Al Gore) in 2004 and 2000 respectively.

Clinton is running on a platform of competent (dare I say) cautious change. It's the type of change voters were looking for in both 2000 and 2004. They didn't want radical shakeups, just subtle personality and policy shifts.

In short, the public wanted change they knew. For Bush in '00, he was just that, known change.

After all, Bush did everything he could do to mimic Gore on many issues. The change he was selling was stylistic.

Remember “restore honor and integrity”? The word “restore” is a change word but it’s a word that looks backward, which is what the public didn’t mind in ’00.

The few swing voters that existed yearned for the simplicity (so they thought) of the Bushes.

And Clinton in '04 would have been that same type of change the public was yearning for.

In '04, Kerry was just too big of a leap for enough folks in Ohio, Florida and Iowa to pull the lever. His change was too radical apparently. He seemed untested; folks couldn't envision what his presidency would look like. But Clinton, with her preparation and her war stance at the time was probably just the right amount to win those final undecided voters.

And given her last name, a Clinton presidency was something the public could easily envision; it may have done the trick.

One glaring example of what makes Clinton potentially vulnerable in '08 but near flawless in '04 happened earlier this week.

Too cautious?
At the AFSCME forum, Clinton was asked whether she was in favor of a pardon for Scooter Libby. Clinton refused to answer the question and instead used the moment to turn the crowd against the moderator, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

And what is remembered now? The way she turned the crowd against Matthews. What's already largely forgotten? The fact that she refused to answer the question. 

The Libby thing is complicated for a lot of official Washington on both sides of the aisle. My gut says Clinton doesn't believe Libby should go to jail (frankly, I bet most of the candidates believe that). There's a "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude among many in D.C. To some, Libby was doing his job (maybe badly or maybe a bit unethically) but it was his job and why should he serve time.

But she can't say that, so she punted. It's the right type of caution the public would have wanted from its Democratic nominee in '04.

But in '08? That's another story.

There are things that she can't control. The appetite for change is as great as any election in the last three decades. And the jury is still out on whether Clinton can be enough change to satisfy Democratic primary voters. 

Much of Clinton's political vulnerabilities now would have been considered assets in '04. Her stance on Iraq, her steely resolve, her last name and technical grasp of issues.

It may very well turn out that Clinton is offering up just enough change to satisfy Democratic primary voters who are also worried about losing the general election.

Then again, considering how well all the front-running Democrats are performing in general, one senses that Democratic primary voters are going to feel empowered to pick someone a little more in tune with them than with the general election electorate.

She's trying very hard to be the change candidate but compared to Barack Obama and John Edwards, it's going to be hard. Her demeanor is cautious by nature and frankly, very presidential. And if she were running against an incumbent president, that demeanor would have been a tremendous asset. But, now, with a public yearning for something that is not what they believe is "presidential," she may not be getting the good that should be coming with that description.

Clinton v. Bush in '04 would have been epic. And considering the base-first election the Bushies were running it probably would have been the better matchup for the Democrats.

The Clintons would have rallied the base in '04 in a way that they may not be able to rally in '08. If she comes up short in '08, I have no doubt there will be second-guessing among some Clinton partisans that maybe she ran in the wrong year.

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