By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 11/21/2007 2:33:23 PM ET 2007-11-21T19:33:23

So you think you have this Democratic primary fight figured out, don't you? It's Clinton vs. Obama (maybe vs. Edwards too). Well, in the words of the country's most loveable, yet annoying ESPN football analyst, Lee Corso: "Not so fast my friends."

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With about a thousand hours to go until the start of the Iowa caucuses, it seems this race is as much about Hillary vs. Clinton – with "Hillary" representing change and "Clinton" representing status quo – as it is about Clinton vs. Obama.

Here is my assumption: If Democratic voters go in to caucus night in Iowa (or primary night in New Hampshire) believing the frontrunner is "Hillary," then she will have successfully sold herself as a change agent.

If these same Democratic voters are still debating the idea of sending another "Clinton" to the White House, it may mean major problems in these early states, which then translates into massive problems down the road.

This conundrum of "Hillary vs. Clinton" as a choice for Democrats really hit home with me in the last few weeks as Bill Clinton decided to become a major surrogate for his wife, in more than just campaign appearances.

Whenever the former president is on the scene, the immediate question for any political reporter or analyst is: Is he or isn't he an asset?

He's clearly the most powerful presidential candidate spouse in history. When he speaks, everyone listens. And for those of us in the press corps, we don't just listen, we transcribe and then begin parsing everything he said. We are all convinced there is some hidden code in what he says, and we must unlock it.

It's what makes using Bill Clinton as a surrogate so difficult sometimes. The press has a knee-jerk reaction when they hear Bill Clinton speak: They automatically assume they are being spun. His words aren’t merely reported, they are analyzed.

This may read like a member of the media admitting to holding Bill Clinton to a different standard. But Clinton did it to himself. In fact, before 1998, I'd be willing to bet I used the word "parsley" in my every day life more often than "parse." But then we had to decipher the meaning of the word “is”...

But so far, a majority of voters don't seem to have a problem with Bill Clinton back in the White House. Voters may be picturing Bill as America's host, or some form of a traditional first lady, er, laddy.

But how will voters react if they know Bill Clinton will be in Cabinet meetings? Or be traveling the country to sell Hillary’s policy proposals? Or head to the Hill to twist arms in Congress?

Do voters want Bill Clinton as a backseat driving Secretary of Defense, or State or Treasury? 

That's the question pollsters ought to be asking. Joe Biden seemed to hint at this when he ruled out being Hillary's vice president. He told CNN it would be nothing more than a "ceremonial post" because of the presence of Bill Clinton.

Maybe the voters do want Bill Clinton actively involved. But we don't know. I won't pretend to know the answer. My guess is that voters will receive the idea of Bill Clinton being actively involved in running the country as both a positive and a negative.

There's no muffling Bill Clinton. It would be strange for Hillary's campaign to try to, just as it is strange when they over-use him.

It's one of the bigger unknowns of this campaign… how will voters receive this idea of two presidents who pillow talk?

For now, Bill's probably a bigger asset than liability as Democratic primary voters long for the days of Clinton.

But this week, we learned via a new Washington Post poll that a majority of Iowa Democratic caucus goers prefer a candidate who advocates a "new direction and new ideas" over a candidate who is pushing "strength and experience."

If that's not code for "Hillary" vs. "Clinton," I don't know what is. The Clinton campaign has very effectively used the Clinton brand to push the idea of “strength and experience.” They have had a much harder time using the Hillary brand to push a "new direction and new ideas."

As I've written before, Obama in both looks and via his name screams "change." Clinton, because she could be the first woman president, should also have an easy time selling the idea that she's change. And in general, this task should be easy. But with Democrats, she may be hitting a (breakable) brick wall.

For now, the campaign seems to be trying to sell the idea that returning to some things Bill Clinton did in the '90s is "experienced change." Perhaps hammering this message home for the next 40 days and 40 nights will make Iowans view Hillary’s experience as a change from the Bush way of doing things.

But right now, Obama seems to be having a much easier time selling change. His challenge is selling experience. And there are a lot of past presidential candidates who had a tough time selling the idea that they were experienced.

In a Washington Post poll released in October '92, then-Pres. Bush scored nearly 20 points higher on having the "right experience" for the job compared with Bill Clinton. Al Gore had a nearly identical 20-point advantage over George W. Bush on the experience question in an election eve survey by ABC. And we know how both of those elections turned out.

Change usually trumps experience even as the experience issue can be used to sway last minute undecideds. Gerald Ford got close in '76 because of his ability to call into question Jimmy Carter's inexperience. Ditto with Nixon in '60 with JFK. But what do both Ford and Nixon have in common? Change trumped experience at the very end.

Of course, all of these examples refer to general elections, and primary electorates can be a cautious bunch. Democrats went for the candidate of less change in '04, '00, and in '84 and even '80. Then again, the Democrats lost in all four of those cycles.

Hillary Clinton's best chance at the White House is her gender. Her biggest impediment may be her last name, even though her last name may have gotten her this far. If she's sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, it will mean "Hillary" beat "Clinton" in the primaries.

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