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Hillary Clinton's primary problem

As the months preceding New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's eventual presidential announcement dwindle to weeks, it's worth exploring just how difficult her path to the Democratic nomination really is.  The National Journal's Chuck Todd reports.
/ Source: National Journal

As the months preceding New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's eventual presidential announcement dwindle to weeks, it's worth exploring just how difficult her path to the Democratic nomination really is. It's tricky to write about her these days, because it seems that everything's been said -- just not everyone has said it. But let's attempt a fresher look.

Too many of us have awarded Clinton the '08 nod too soon and too easily. The conventional-wisdom crowd is easily impressed by two things about her candidacy:money and her last name. There's also a dirty little secret that those of us in the media are leery to admit:She's good for business (particularly expense reports).

Take the money and surname drama and add a dash of media anticipation, and you get the simplest explanation of the perceived Clinton juggernaut.

There's one flaw in all of this, though, and that is the electorate. As the likelihood of a Clinton campaign becomes a reality, more reasons turn up that suggest why she could lose the nomination. In fact, the primary may be harder for her than the general election. A bad three-week period at the wrong time in the wrong state could doom a bid, particularly with this front-loaded primary calendar. While the same thing can happen in a general, the same ridiculous scoring of expectations doesn't apply to general elections the way it does in primary battles.

Here are six reasons why Clinton could blow up in the primary:

Who loves her? How big is this group of voters?

Now ask yourself, who loves Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D)? Who loves former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D)? Or even Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R)? And of course, who loves former President Bill Clinton?

Anecdotally, numerous Democratic activists around the country don't appear to love the former first lady. There's a whole lot of "like" -- they have a loyalty to her. They want to back her, and they want to walk on hot coals for her, but they haven't gotten there yet. But potential rivals like Obama and former Vice President Al Gore both have incredibly passionate supporters. Passion can be important in a primary, particularly when things turn south. The candidate with a passionate and loyal base can withstand a few bad weeks; candidates who lack passionate supporters can disappear forever. Then again, if you can't be with the one you love, then do you love the one you're with?

I've said it before -- there's no tougher state for Clinton to start this quest than Iowa. This purple state (which just showed major signs of getting bluer) has never elected a woman as governor or senator, nor has it even elected a woman to Congress. The Hawkeye State is full of older voters and blue-collar labor union members who have appeared hesitant to elect women to executive positions all throughout the Midwest. Toss in the very liberal nature of a Democratic caucus-goer there and the fact that the Clintons didn't need to campaign in the state during either of the former president's campaigns, and you have a hurdle in Iowa that is much harder to clear than folks in D.C. might believe.

She's been far more critical of the war recently, but fundamentally she's still a hawk, and the Democratic primary electorate (especially in Iowa) is full of doves. Can her semi-pro-intervention argument on Iraq withstand an onslaught of criticism from each one of her opponents? She's no Sen. Joe Lieberman, I/D-Conn., but could she end up accumulating Lieberman-like hatred in the blogosphere because of Iraq? It's possible.

This will be an issue, particularly in the Midwest, which is why it's a problem. Should she get the nomination, however, her gender's assets (both the historical significance and the hesitance her GOP opponent will have in attacking her) give her a net plus.

Bill Clinton
Let's get something straight. Without her spouse, the former first lady wouldn't be in the front-runner position she's in now. But what strikes me as the biggest problem he causes is the heap of comparisons he presents. She'll never "be like Bill" no matter how the media frames stories about her campaign -- in the text of her speeches, on the stump or as someone who can both take and deliver a punch. Dom DiMaggio was one of the better players in baseball, but he was no Joe DiMaggio. Some argue that if Dom's last name were anything but DiMaggio, he would have been voted into the Hall of Fame.

President Bush
Welcome to what I believe is the single biggest problem for Clinton. It's Bush, America's second "legacy" president. It's not that any Democratic voter will believe she will be like the younger Bush as president -- it's that Democrats may want to break the cycle of Bush, Clinton, Bush and Clinton. It's possible voters got the "change" bug out of their system in '06, but if not, the fatigue of the same people in charge for a 20-year period (or basically, a generation) is going to be a problem. Clinton's far from being an outsider. Also, don't underestimate the polarization fatigue. No matter who started it, the twin-wing hatred of the Bushes on the left and the Clintons on the right may be exhausting the political system. Perhaps that "Rodham" name can be of use after all...

Now, compare these six hurdles to the reasons why some believe she's unstoppable (money, name and media).

Twenty-two years ago, there was another candidate in a similar position as Clinton. Former Vice President Walter Mondale got the Democratic nod in '84 because his loyal base of support was just too much for former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart to overcome. But that was many media transformations ago, and I'm not sure Mondale would have survived in '84 in this climate. Still, the Clintons are unlike any political family in American history, winning campaigns they never had any business winning. Of course, Hillary begins in an unfamiliar position for a Clinton -- she starts her campaign as the candidate to beat. She has surrounded herself with a slew of battle-tested and loyal folks, who may only be rivaled by McCain.