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Will Obama force Clinton's early entry?

If voter excitement is any indication, Sen. Barack Obama may be transforming the 2008 Democratic presidential race to Hillary Clinton’s disadvantage.
U.S. Senator Obama shares a laugh with Iraq War veteran and Democratic Congressional candidate Duckworth in Elmhurst
Sen. Barack Obama with Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth in Elmhurst, Ill. on the eve of Election Day. She lost, but he gained stature due to his campaigning for Democratic candidates across the nation.John Gress / Reuters file
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Several months ago, long before the euphoria in Democratic ranks began to build about a run for the presidency by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic consultant in Washington told me that Sen. Hillary Clinton could afford to wait until much later than the other 2008 contenders to declare her candidacy.

He argued that Clinton’s non-announcement — holding off until as late as the fall of 2007 — would freeze the other contenders as the news media became obsessed with hand-wringing stories about “what will Hillary do?”

Her rivals would struggle to get attention during the media’s speculative Clinton fever.

Her late entry wouldn’t hobble her, he argued, since she could quickly raise immense sums of campaign money and catch up and surpass her rivals.

I spoke to that same Democratic consultant this week. Now, he said, Obama has fundamentally transformed the race and “he may force her to get in early.”

Obama's recent moves
Obama’s deft moves have been impressive for a rookie senator — his well-promoted national book tour to sell "The Audacity of Hope", now ranked number one on the New York Times best-seller list, his coast-to-coast campaigning in September and October for Democratic congressional candidates, and topping it off, his first foray to New Hampshire next week.

The crowd reaction witnessed from rank-and-file Democrats as Obama addressed the party faithful in Minnesota and Pennsylvania in the weeks prior to the election was comparable only to the adulation that greeted Clinton - not Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, as he campaigned for the Democratic ticket in Maryland the weekend before the election.

At Obama’s events in Rochester, Minn., and Norristown, Pa. people showed up early, carrying copies of his book, and copies of Time magazine with his face on the cover. When Obama finished his speech and walked the rope line at the edge of the crowd, his fans frantically thrust the magazine, the book, posters, any scrap of paper they could find at him for his autograph.

If voter excitement is any indication, Obama may be transforming the race to Clinton’s disadvantage.

Foray to New Hampshire
Now, with his Granite State foray, he is signaling that he may well be on the ballot in early primary states. The New Hampshire visit “will be an event that gets activists’ attention, gets them to turn the page and focus on 2008,” said Dante Scala, political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

Scala cautioned that “momentum is fleeting at this stage and hard to measure.”

But he said “Obama, based on very little, has put himself in the top tier and vaulted over Democratic contenders who have already been spending time in New Hampshire for a while.”

The group who has already invested time in wooing Granite State Democrats includes Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who heads Thursday to New Hampshire as part of the formal launch of his presidential bid, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

“I’d say Obama is on the same shelf as John Edwards” in his current standing among New Hampshire Democrats, Scala said. “He has the advantage over John Edwards of being a new face.”

No effect on Clinton?
There are Democratic strategists who dispute the theory that Obama will force Clinton to jump in the race earlier than she would have otherwise. Some say she’s such a towering figure in her party that she can make her entry whenever she thinks best.

A Democratic state party chairman who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “I have said all along that Sen. Clinton will decide what she should do in the first quarter of 2007.” As for the recent Obama commotion: “I don’t think it makes any difference in her timetable.”

“I don't think Obama's water-testing is going to affect Hillary's timing,” said Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein who worked on Sen. Joe Lieberman’s successful re-election campaign. “She is pretty disciplined, and there is no reason right now to deviate from her plan.”

But, Gerstein added, “I do think that Obama's potential poses a significant threat to her, primarily because he, better than any other candidate, magnifies her greatest weakness — likeability.”  

He said “many Democrats, not just many Americans, seem to view her as cold and calculating. That's not fair, but it's the reality, and Obama's warmth and charm and personable-ness will likely only serve to deepen that widespread impression of Hillary.”

So, he argued, “if Obama's flirtations have any impact on Sen. Clinton's game plan, it would be to force her to open up more and move more quickly to confront and change her image problem. In that sense, Obama could end up doing Hillary a real favor.”