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Has Barack Obama got it in him?

We’re waiting for an Obama moment – if he’s got another one in him. If he does, he has a chance to pull what would be a sensational upset by attracting the swarm of independent voters here who make this state’s primary unique.
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We’re waiting for an Obama moment – if he’s got another one in him. If he does, he has a chance to pull what would be a sensational upset by attracting the swarm of independent voters here who make this state’s primary unique.

In this most political of primary states, the urgent question in the Democratic presidential race on the eve of an MSNBC debate is: when will Sen. Barack Obama go after – really go after – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? For if he doesn’t do it soon, and effectively, the contest for the 2008 nomination may well be over before it officially starts.

Does Obama think that Hillary is dangerously “more of the same” in international affairs – a Bush in Democratic clothing? Does he think she is the blind and corrupted product of a hopelessly tarnished system of money and access in the nation’s capital? Does he think that it’s time for the upper, “Howdy Doody” end of the Baby Boom, now approaching retirement age in the Peanut Gallery, to stand aside for Gen X and even Gen Y leadership? These are the subtext – the rationale – of his campaign. But if he believes it, and I think he does, the text had better go from sub to surface, fast.

Since they are Chicagoans, sort of, and since this is football season, let me use a gridiron analogy. Unless Obama absorbs the spirit of the riled up ’85 Bears, who blitzed on every down, Hillary will continue to dink and dunk her way down the field to victory.

At first and second glance, she is a juggernaut. She proved it last weekend, executing a maneuver they call in the TV talk-show business “The Full Ginsburg.” Named after Monica Lewinsky’s craven, publicity-mad lawyer, the move consists of getting yourself booked on ALL FIVE Sunday morning talk shows on the same day. No presidential candidate in recent memory has managed to do that – until Clinton did last Sunday. It was a tacit admission by Big Media that she is in control, big time.

The polls everywhere – and now, for the first time, in Iowa – reflect that dominance.

The interesting question is: Why?  Well, as everyone knows, she has run a cautious but mostly error-free campaign so far, absorbing and digesting the methods and messages of her rivals like a giant political amoeba. There really isn’t much substantive ideological distance among the Democratic presidential contestants, but what little of it there is Hillary has finessed and papered over with relative ease.

She has used her and her husband’s fame shrewdly, taming and tailoring coverage based on which media are, or are not, willing to play ball. Her masterful and rhino-hided spin doctors, Howard Wolfson and Mandy Grunwald, know that they don’t need to generate coverage; the Clintons always will have more than they need. Their attitude is similar to that of candidate George Bush in 1999. He already had 100 percent name recognition (though a lot of people thought he was his dad), and Karl Rove and Karen Hughes decided early on that press coverage was all downside risk.

Hillary has benefited from Bush in another way: His mere existence has so unified the party that the Democrats are behaving the way Republicans used to: they seem, so far, to want an orderly nomination process as they keep their eye on the main chance.  (The GOP, meanwhile, is behaving like the Democrats used to: divided, confused and self-destructive.)

Still, I distrust the consensus of conventional thinking that already has awarded Clinton the nomination. We still are nearly four months away from the first votes being cast, but here are some other reasons why it may still be too early for a coronation:

Money: The Clintonistas are telling me that they think Obama will outraise them again in the third quarter. He has been spending lots of cash, especially in Iowa, but still is likely to have much more COH (cash on hand) than Hillary for the next few months. This is a novel situation: an “outsider, insurgent” candidate with more money to throw around than the establishment candidate. How he spends this money is critical. He has a choice: keep trying to be the coolest, most admirable character on the quad – or go after the BWOC.

Media: Lets’ face it, the press’s native mode is to want a race and, by our very nature, we will try to force one into existence if for no other reason than it is “good copy” and “good TV.” True, the GOP presidential race is likely to be entertainingly close, confused and chaotic. Still, Clinton is THE story, and the farther ahead she gets in the polls and in CW thinking, the more sensational the story would be of a sudden fall from presidential inevitability.

Bill: What the First Husband giveth, he can take away. In the “World According to Garp,” the hero argues that it is safe to move into a house because it once had been hit by an airplane. Thus, he says, the place was “pre-disastered.” So is the Clinton marriage. I think Hillary can survive almost any imaginable new chapter in their saga, IF there is one to be written. The key word: almost.

Independents: In New Hampshire, this is Obama’s real chance – the chance for what would be a stunning upset. I flew up here today with former Sen. Warren Rudman, a moderate Republican (and John McCain supporter) who is one of the most knowledgeable men alive about politics in the Granite State. He pointed out to me that there are, today, more voters in New Hampshire registered as Independents than as either Republicans or Democrats. He reminded me that they can easily vote in either primary. The interplay of the two primaries is crucial. In 2000, McCain’s candidacy drew most of the independents into the GOP race, giving McCain the upset win over George Bush and effectively killing Sen. Bill Bradley’s chances against Vice President Al Gore. In 2008, I doubt that many independents are going to vote in the GOP primary. They are going to gravitate to the Democratic race.  If Obama is going to win, that is the constituency he needs. The sales effort has to start tomorrow.