- - Sunday, June 21, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Eight years ago, in summer 2007, there were two absolute shoo-ins for the presidential nominations. The Republican was head and shoulders above his challengers, his name known to every American. And the Democrat was simply unbeatable, with a team and a machine second to none.

Their names were Rudolph W. Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Rudy wanted to be president; he just didn’t want to run for president. He didn’t bother with Iowa and New Hampshire, setting his sights on Florida. But Sen. John McCain, building on wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, crushed him there. Mr. Giuliani dropped out the next day.

Hillary, too, was seen as invincible. She had the Clinton Rolodex of million-dollar bundlers, plus millions of email addresses built up over a decade. All the top campaign brains were on board and America was ready to move on from two terms of Republican leadership.

But then, a mostly unknown first-term senator jumped into the race. At that point, Barack Obama had done little more than deliver a rousing keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Yet his ragtag team fought harder and smarter, finally shoving Mrs. Clinton out of the race June 7.

It’s still 505 days until Election Day 2016. The Republicans have a new candidate (or three) enter the race each week — so many it’s hard to keep track. At this point, it’s impossible to tell who will break out of the pack and take the nomination.

But the Democrats have a presumptive nominee already, and have since Election Day 2012: Hillary. Like 2007, political pundits in the mainstream media gush about her, the air of history that would accompany the first woman president. And like eight years ago, her opponents are virtual unknowns: A governor from a very liberal state (Maryland), and a 73-year-old senator from Vermont who describes himself as a democratic socialist.

This may not end up like 2008, but 2016 has all the same markings. Mrs. Clinton has a serious Bernie problem, and like 2007 with Mr. Obama, she doesn’t appear to even realize it.

Mr. Sanders is drawing huge crowds wherever he appears, and his anti-establishment message is resonating with a disconnected electorate that has just suffered through six years of the dismal Obamaconomy. More, a Gallup poll last week found that Democrats are increasingly more liberal: 53 percent self-identify as liberal, up 14 percent since Mrs. Clinton last ran for president.

The most recent New Hampshire poll put Mr. Sanders within 10 points of Mrs. Clinton, 41-31. And this while Mrs. Clinton is commanding scads of TV time, having delivered not one but two announcement speeches. Her every move is captured by cable TV stations and aired ad infinitum. But Mr. Sanders — running as a far-left candidate in the manner of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the liberal heartthrob who was boosted by the media but decided not to run — has a hard time getting coverage for just about any speech he gives, and travels with a fairly small entourage, unlike the massive motorcade and private jets that ferry Team Clinton about town.

Team Clinton, however, doesn’t really know how to deal with Mr. Sanders. If they go after him, they boost his stature and show fear. If they leave him alone, he could continue to rise, garner more TV coverage and appear to be her equal.

And Mr. Sanders has the skills to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, making later primary voters feel a vote for him is not a throwaway. The Clintonistas know it, and are already starting to lower expectations. “We wouldn’t be surprised if he does very well in New Hampshire or in Iowa, and perhaps even win,” said former Clinton aide Maria Cardona. “We shouldn’t be surprised. There’s so much enthusiasm” for Mr. Sanders, she said.

Mr. Sanders has also been able to raise money: After he announced his candidacy, he took in $1.5 million in just 24 hours, more than Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

In the end, Mr. Sanders may be nothing more than a flash in the pan. And Mrs. Clinton could co-opt parts of his message that are clearly resonating with the liberal wing of the party, making her a stronger candidate.

But right now, it’s Mr. Sanders who is setting the pace in the Democratic battle. And just like in 2007, Mrs. Clinton can be beaten — by a first-term senator and “community organizer,” or even a democratic socialist from Vermont.

Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at josephcurl@gmail.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.

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