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The Perils of Being a Presidential Frontrunner

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes part in the Georgetown University Symposium Advancing Afghan Women: Promoting Peace and Progress in Afghanistan on Nov. 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images file

Being a presidential frontrunner can be a curse. Just ask Rudy Giuliani, the early GOP favorite in 2008 who failed to score a nomination despite all that hype.

Ditto Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to the man who currently sits in the Oval Office.

The latest example of this curse: New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He was propelled to possible frontrunner status after a resounding re-election victory in November, but is now ensnared in scandals that would jeopardize any White House bid.

Other past frontrunners or co-frontrunners – think John Kerry in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 – ended up capturing their party’s nod. But their victories all turned out to be much harder than expected.

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In fact, you have to go back to George W. Bush in 2000 when a presidential candidate running for his party’s nod pretty much stayed in front from start to end. And even that wasn’t easy for Bush, who lost the key New Hampshire primary to McCain that year.

So as the 2016 presidential race gets closer and closer, anyone perceived as being the early frontrunner – especially Clinton if she runs again – should know well about the dangers of being viewed as the ordained nominee.

Three big risks

There are three risks to being perceived as the early front-runner. The first is the additional media attention.

While getting heavy media attention has its benefits, it also comes with perils -- the investigative pieces looking into the candidate’s past, the parsing of every statement or tweet, the tougher questions at candidate debates.

“With the attention comes scrutiny,” said veteran Republican strategist Danny Diaz. “And sometimes at this stage, that scrutiny is unwelcome.”

The second risk is the pile-on effect by rival candidates. If you’re on top, the others want to bring you down.

“When you are declared the front-runner, [your rivals] are facing their own political execution, and they become focused on bringing you down,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who worked for Howard Dean -- another one-time presidential frontrunner whose candidacy ultimately fizzled in 2004.

Dean, McMahon adds, became “the target of every arrow that could be fired from the left or right.”

That also was true for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 bid. Recall this exchange from the consequential Oct. 2007 Democratic debate in Philadelphia, where Clinton seemed to take both sides of a question about whether illegal immigrants should have drivers licenses.

CLINTON: Well, I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do...

CHRIS DODD: No, no, no. You said -- you said yes...

CLINTON: No.

DODD: ... you thought it made sense to do it.

CLINTON: No, I didn't, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are driving...

Then other candidates entered the fray:

JOHN EDWARDS: Unless I missed something, Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago. And I think this is a real issue for the country. I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing.

And then entered the man who eventually won the ’08 Democratic nomination:

BARACK OBAMA: I was confused on Sen. Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it. And I do think that is important. One of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face.

The third risk to being the frontrunner is peaking too soon. Just like a sports team wanting to save its best play for last, presidential candidates want to be climbing in the polls -- instead of dropping -- right before the first primary contests.

Of course, that timing is largely out of their hands.

“Unless you start really late or get lucky, it is almost impossible to time your emergence and rise,” says McMahon, the Democratic strategist. “It happens whenever it happens.”

‘A different kind of front-runner’

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, the question is if these primary dangers might not affect her as much because she wouldn’t be your ordinary front-runner if she runs.

“She is almost like a sitting vice president,” a Democratic political observer tells NBC News. “It's a different kind of front-runner.”

Indeed, it’s possible she doesn’t face any real Democratic opposition, especially compared with her competition from 2008. The actual sitting vice president -- Joe Biden -- is unlikely to run if Clinton does. Ditto Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also has said she isn’t running in 2016.

And even if they all do run, a recent national Washington Post/ABC poll has shown Clinton is far ahead getting 73 percent among Democrats -- versus 12 percent for Biden and 8 percent for Warren.

But that’s the danger for the big front-runner: Sometimes you have nowhere to go but down.