Sunday, December 17, 2006

Several key Democrats say Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, now the front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination, could become the Howard Dean of 2008.

Some say her biggest problem is her “electability,” an issue that could work against her in the caucuses and primaries among rank-and-file Democrats, who see 2008 as their year to win back the White House if they choose a candidate who appeals to independent and swing voters.

“Hillary Clinton is going to be a formidable opponent because she is able to raise more money. But does that make you the winner? Ask Howard Dean. He was raising more money than you can imagine, but ended up doing poorly in ‘04,” said former Iowa Democratic Chairman Rob Tully.

“In the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats really look at electability and, quite frankly, she is running against herself,” said Mr. Tully, who recently stepped down from his post as head of the state party.

Other Democrats were not as blunt in their assessment of the obstacles that Mrs. Clinton may face if, as expected, the New York senator enters the race. But when asked about Mrs. Clinton’s lead in opinion polls, they also point to the ill-fated presidential campaign of Mr. Dean, the former Vermont governor who went into the 2004 primaries as the odds-on choice for the nomination, only to see his prospects collapse in the Iowa caucuses in January.

“Any Democrat who perceives themselves as the front-runner is vulnerable because in a primary anything can happen and oftentimes does,” said Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic chairman, who recalled Mr. Dean drawing huge crowds and leading in the polls toward the end of 2003, “but he didn’t do as well as he hoped when the environment changed dramatically during the early primary season.”

Mr. Tully said Mrs. Clinton has “name recognition, popularity among Democrats and a lot of money, but the test will be whether she can beat the image problem — the perception out there [among Democrats] that she is not electable among the general electorate.”

He said “electability is going to be the big issue” in the Iowa caucus.

“Quite frankly, the Democrats — as we saw in Bill Clinton’s nomination in 1992 — they do not want to let this chance slip by in 2008, when we think we have a great opportunity to win back the presidency,” Mr. Tully said.

Many Democrats discount the polls showing Mrs. Clinton ahead.

“The polls are more name recognition than anything else. In 2003, the front-runner was Senator John Kerry, and then it became Howard Dean. So things can change,” said Kathleen Sullivan, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Questions about Mrs. Clinton’s electability were underscored in the findings of a national WNBC/Marist poll released Dec. 7 that revealed the former first lady “has much more convincing to do among a general electorate that is divided over whether they want to see her in the race,” said Lee M. Miringoff, the survey’s director.

“Most voters feel her electability is not an issue in deciding their vote, although a significant proportion of Democrats voice at least some concern,” Mr. Miringoff said in an analysis of the poll’s results

Other Democrats questioned whether Mrs. Clinton, whose candidacy has been talked about for several years, may have peaked in terms of available party support.

“I think the question is as Clinton continues to grow her support, has she already topped off? Has she already reached her maximum level of support in the Democratic primaries?” said Bud Jackson, a Democratic media consultant.

Mr. Jackson, who produced a campaign video ad for the “Draft Obama” committee that will be broadcast throughout New Hampshire this week, said that although Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois “is far less known than Hillary, he still has room to grow his support. All these candidates who are not Hillary, if some of them drop off, as they will, many Democrats conclude their support will go to someone other than Hillary.”

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