Anyone wanting to understand why Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign is being praised these days in many quarters — including rival campaigns and the White House — needed to look no further than their televisions on Sunday morning. Mrs. Clinton appeared on five interview programs, the campaign equivalent of a home run.
Mrs. Clinton appeared from her home and for the most part on her terms, primarily to talk about health care, wringing another day of what has been mostly positive coverage from the plan she announced Sept. 17.
Mrs. Clinton’s proposal came long after the ones put forward by former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, and it was very much derivative of them. No matter; by the end of the week, her plan was, at least for the moment, defining the discussion — serving as a reminder that the Democratic presidential contest these days is to a considerable degree being defined by and around Mrs. Clinton.
Politicians and journalists inevitably try to simplify crowded political contests by identifying one candidate as a front-runner, long before a single American even votes. It is a designation that is often based on the most tenuous of evidence and one that often proves to be wrong.
Yet this time around, the Democrats would seem to have a leading candidate in the person of a certain former first lady.
“Of course she is the front-runner,” Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to Mr. Edwards, said of Mrs. Clinton. “By her lonesome.”
Mr. Trippi has been in politics for a long time and knows what he is doing. It is a good bet that in proclaiming Mrs. Clinton the front-runner, he is also trying to diminish Mr. Obama, putting Mr. Obama on the same level as Mr. Edwards. He was also no doubt raising expectations for Mrs. Clinton so that anything short of an outright victory would be seen as a stinging defeat for her in the Iowa caucuses.
But even putting aside the gamesmanship, it is hard to find someone who thinks Mrs. Clinton is not now the candidate to beat. Even President Bush reportedly told a group of television journalists last week that he thought she would win her party’s nomination.
Based on what?
But what is this assessment of front-runner status based on? And how realistic is it?
Typically, a candidate is adjudged a front-runner because he — or she — leads in the polls, has the most endorsements, is ahead in fund-raising, gets the most media attention, draws the biggest crowds and, well, just comes across as a front-runner.
Mrs. Clinton has been helped considerably by the perception in Democratic circles that she has outpaced her competitors at most of the candidate debates.
Yet Mrs. Clinton may be a good example of why the front-runner designation is so ephemeral. Mr. Obama has arguably outpaced her in fund-raising and crowds. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have held their own in winning endorsements.
Mrs. Clinton may have the lead in national polls and polls in New Hampshire. But most polls show a tight three-way race in Iowa, where many Democrats consider Mr. Edwards the, um, front-runner. Anyway, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire in the fall do not tell you very much about what is going to happen in January.
The truth is, there is no evidence that the Democratic primary voters have fallen head-over-heels for Mrs. Clinton. And any event that reminds Democratic voters of the lingering concerns about her could topple her from her perch.
Mrs. Clinton’s front-runner status is arguably as much a tribute to the quality of her campaign as to the candidate herself. Her campaign is filled with advisers and consultants who have done this before, including, obviously, her husband.
And she faces some potentially formidable opponents, starting with Mr. Obama. The criticism he has endured this year is that he does not have the experience to be president; the more relevant criticism may be that he may not have campaign experience yet to run for president.
But presidential campaigns are learning experiences. And Mr. Obama seems to have learned from these last nine months on the campaign trail. He turned in what was widely seen as an impressive debate performance in Iowa two weeks back. He has personally rewritten his stump speech to deal with the questions of experience, and at least at one appearance — last week in Washington — it drew him long applause.
Should Mrs. Clinton falter, Mr. Edwards is expected to wield the argument that a white Southern man is far more electable in a general election than a woman or an African-American (though Mr. Edwards probably will not make the case quite that directly).
Mrs. Clinton’s advisers have clearly decided that being known as the front-runner is a good thing. It is a way to corral supporters and contributors; it helps to erase the idea that she is unelectable. But the evidence suggests that it is not necessarily helpful in predicting who the Democratic nominee is going to be.