Public opinion polls, as well as inside-the-Beltway punditry, suggest that Sen. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
A Gallup Poll in February found that 39 percent of self-described Democrats and Democratic “leaners” would be most likely to support Clinton for the 2008 nomination. The next closest Democrat was 2004 nominee Sen. John Kerry with 15 percent.
But recent interviews with dozens of active Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that hold the first caucus and primary of 2008, reveal that many party members who vote in those early contests don’t want Clinton as their nominee.
These politically active Democrats voice a sense of resignation, verging on fatalism, about a Clinton run for the nomination.
“I hope she won’t run, and I don’t know whether I’d support her,” said Jean Lloyd-Jones, a veteran Democrat from Iowa City, Iowa who was the party’s unsuccessful Senate nominee in 1992.
During the 1992 campaign Lloyd-Jones spent a day and half with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore in Iowa on their now-famous bus tour.
Hope she stays in the Senate
“I think she should stay in the Senate a bit longer,” said Lloyd-Jones, who chipped in $1,000 to Clinton’s 2006 Senate re-election fund. “I don’t think this is the time for her to run (for president). I don’t quite understand why she is such a polarizing figure, but she is.”
Lloyd-Jones voiced admiration for Clinton: “she’s very smart, savvy and on the right side of most issues.” Nevertheless she said, “Those of us who think she’d be a great president are fearful of the viciousness of the attacks we anticipate the opposition would level at her.”
“I think she’s just a lightning rod for both sides,” said Jan Sutherland, a Council Bluffs, Iowa retiree and part-time teacher of English as a second language, who supported Kerry in the 2004 caucuses. “There are too many people who dislike Hillary. It’s not that Hillary can’t handle the job, they just simply dislike Hillary and they’d vote against her personally.”
Sutherland added: “I don’t think she can win. It will just keep the country split.”
“She has great name identity,” noted Democratic state senator Daryl Beall, from Fort Dodge in northwest Iowa. He backed Howard Dean in the 2004 caucuses.
But Beall said, “I would have a difficult time supporting her, frankly…. She comes with a lot of political baggage. As I talk to people, I just don’t hear her even being considered among the top candidates.”
He also said, “I understand she’s kind of making a migration to the center. Bill Clinton did that fairly easily, but I think she’s upset a lot of her more left-of-center Democratic base in the process. The flag burning issue and things of that nature, more symbolic probably than substantive, but it has not resonated well.”
A code word?
The word “polarizing” — without any explicit mention of Clinton’s name — may have become a kind of coded reference to her.
Last weekend, when I asked 2008 Democratic contender and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner whether he was a compelling alternative to Clinton, he laughed off the question as typical news media fluff.
But then he added, “I think this country is in need of the kind of transformative change that’s going to take leaders that are not polarizing, leaders that can see a little bit farther down the road.”
Vigorously defending Clinton from the “polarizing” argument is Bill Shaheen, who headed John Kerry’s primary campaign in New Hampshire three years ago, as well as chairing the Al Gore New Hampshire effort in 2000.
The “polarizing” allegation “is a myth perpetuated by the news media,” Shaheen said. “Two things that Hillary Clinton has done that you could take an opinion on and be critical of: one is she wanted universal health care for all Americans,” he said. “Well, shame on her. If that’s a polarization, well then let’s get polarized. The second thing is she forgave her husband; she stood by her man. What’s the sin in that? What’s the other thing she’d done that has hurt people? The answer is nothing. Tell me what else she’s done to polarize America.”
Debunking 'she can't win'
Another Clinton defender is Garth Corriveau, a Manchester, N.H. lawyer and Democratic activist.
“I frankly think she should run,” Corriveau said. “I don’t believe the whole ‘she can’t win’ thing, because if you ask me, the Clintons are the best political strategists of the last half of the twentieth century. Everyone knows the national election is going to come down to five or ten states again: who’s to say that the people in Ohio or New Hampshire or Florida or New Mexico aren’t going to vote for her? I think that’s ridiculous.”
To do justice to Sen. Clinton’s popularity, we should note that she has raised $27.5 million for her 2006 re-election fund.
According to the Federal Election Commission, more than 18,000 individual donors across the nation have chipped in to Clinton’s Senate fund — and they did so knowing that she need not use most of her cash (since she faces negligible Republican opposition in her race this year) and she can roll over that money into her presidential campaign war chest if she decides to run.
But the skeptics in Iowa and New Hampshire are too numerous to discount.
“I think it’s a big mistake,” said Arnie Arnesen, New Hampshire radio talk show host and former congressional candidate, of a potential Clinton run for the White House.
“I think we need to make a decision as a nation that we are not going to recycle bumper stickers for about ten or 15 years,” she said. “That was the Bush problem and that’s the Clinton problem. It’s not that Clinton isn’t a bright, articulate woman… In this state she will have to prove that she is by far the best and that the liability of that recycled bumper sticker is far outweighed by the capability.”
Will Clinton go to New Hampshire to do retail campaigning? “I think she’s terrified,” said Arnesen.
'A bit of a chameleon'
Jackie Cilley, a state representative in New Hampshire and a Dean supporter in ’04, said, “I would prefer to see somebody like Sen. Feingold or Gov. Warner .... I think she’s a remarkable woman; I think she’s done remarkable things.” But Cilley added Clinton is “willing to be a bit of a chameleon in order to appease a larger group of the voters.”
“I worry about the fragmentation issue,” said another New Hampshire Democrat, state senator Peter Burling. “The country seems so incredibly polarized right now. I have a yearning for a Democratic candidate whose primary effect will be to bring us together.”
Recalling his work for Rep. Dick Gephardt’s presidential bid in 2004, he said, “Gephardt was the kind of guy who could pull folks together. Boy, do we have to do that. It’s not a Democratic imperative, it’s a national imperative. I do worry about how a Clinton campaign at this point would affect that.”
While some rank-and-file Democrats argue Clinton can't win the presidency, others suggest that she might not make the best Democratic nominee because she hasn't shown leadership qualities, especially on the issue of the Iraq war.
Dr. Bill Siroty, a 2004 Howard Dean supporter from Amherst, N.H., said that for those Democrats who are deeply opposed to the Iraq war, Clinton is “part of the problem” since “she supports the status quo” and has been unwilling to call for a date for withdrawal of American troops. If Clinton were willing to join Feingold’s call for a specific end date, “people would be dancing in the streets.”
Why aren’t national polls picking up such Clinton skepticism from Democratic activists? The answer: because respondents to those surveys are not necessarily Democrats who cast ballots, nor even registered Democratic voters.
Surveys such as the Gallup Poll don’t specifically sample Democrats who in fact voted in the 2004 primaries. It is not that such voters can’t be sampled — a pollster could select names randomly from a state’s voter file — the official record of those who actually cast ballots in the most recent Democratic primary election.
But at this early date no pollster has gone to the expense of using voter files to determine party activists’ sentiment about the 2008 race.