Barack Obama’s entry into the presidential race is working out just fine for Hillary Clinton.
Since he unexpectedly stepped forward to run late last year, Illinois’ junior senator has helped curtail John Edwards’ early momentum, starved the other six Democratic candidates of badly-needed oxygen, and kept Al Gore at bay – each a significant boon to Mrs. Clinton’s efforts.
At the same time, Mr. Obama himself has proven an underwhelming candidate (except in the fund-raising department), one who has thus far failed to develop and articulate a specific message that might stem the stubborn gap – in national polls and key early states – that separates his second-place candidacy from the front-running former First Lady.
Indeed, while the Republican race is unusually unsettled and cluttered at the top, the Democratic nominating contest, six months from the first caucus, has a rather definite shape: Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama seem to be the only two candidates with realistic shots at the nomination, and Mrs. Clinton much more so than Mr. Obama.
Hillary now enjoys commanding leads in two of the first four primary and caucus states: Nevada and New Hampshire, where polls consistently show her 15 to 20 points ahead of Mr. Obama, her nearest challenger. Data from South Carolina has not been quite as consistent, but Hillary leads Mr. Obama in most surveys there as well, and she’s even supplanted Mr. Edwards, the long-time Iowa front-runner, in several recent polls there.
The Democratic nominating contest will play out in two waves early next year: A two-week series of stand-alone contests (Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, in that order), followed by the almost certainly decisive “Tsunami Tuesday” in early February, when about two dozen states will hold primaries and caucuses. (There may end up being a fifth stand-alone contest in Florida, another state where Mrs. Clinton holds a lop-sided polling advantage.)
From a practical standpoint, this means that if any candidate is to overtake Hillary, that candidate will need to win at least two of those early contests, three maybe, in order to generate the momentum required to defuse Mrs. Clinton’s inevitability in the “Tsunami Tuesday” states.
Otherwise, there’s little reason to believe that the considerable advantage Mrs. Clinton now enjoys in national polls won’t hold up in what amounts to a national primary on February 5. Mr. Obama’s presence is a blessing to Mrs. Clinton because he seems to have essentially frozen the race in place – preserving that favorable national dynamic for Mrs. Clinton as she pursues a clock-killing strategy.
This is not what was supposed to happen. Mr. Obama’s early flirtations with the race stirred such energy and passion among the party’s base – and even with some casual voters – that several candidates (Warner, Bayh and Vilsack) headed for the sidelines, figuring that it was futile to try to compete. Polls showed him instantly challenging Mrs. Clinton for supremacy, and his early traction spooked her into speeding up her own campaign timetable.
But while his charisma, inspiring story, and the memory of the 2004 convention speech that made him famous were all enough to make Mr. Obama a contender, he hasn’t significantly built on that as a candidate, playing it safe-to-boring in speeches and debates. Upon catching Mr. Obama at a recent New Hampshire appearance, Mike Pride, a columnist for the Concord Monitor, wrote that, “Obama is a good speaker, but he often comes at issues in a remote, almost clinical way, like a professor teaching a class. That makes it easy to drift off while he’s talking. His questioners at the…party gave him several opportunities to be direct and forceful, but he passed them by.”
Were Mr. Obama the undisputed front-runner, this sterile, inoffensive style would be fine, the easiest way to preserve his lead. But only Mrs. Clinton gets to play that game. Personality and biography can take a presidential candidate a long way – but what urgent vision is Mr. Obama offering?
And so, while it’s not at all clear that Mr. Obama is capable of catching Mrs. Clinton, he has succeeded in creating a vast division between himself and all of the other Democratic candidates.
Just consider what has happened to Mr. Edwards. Last summer, his nomination prospects seemed almost rosy. His populism and war rhetoric would, it seemed, would propel him to a victory in Iowa, something he’d then follow-up with a win in union-friendly Nevada, and his native state of South Carolina, giving him wins over Mrs. Clinton in three of those first four states (with Mrs. Clinton hanging on in New Hampshire, her strongest and Mr. Edwards’ weakest of the early states).
But now the only early state Mr. Edwards is truly competitive in is Iowa, where he and Mrs. Clinton swap leads depending on the poll. Much of the left-wing party base his campaign is designed to attract is has lined up with Mr. Obama. No longer is an Iowa victory likely to set off a domino reaction of subsequent Edwards’ victories, since it would not knock Mr. Obama out and give Mr. Edwards the clear shot at Hillary that many envisioned last year. Mr. Obama, with his campaign treasury, has staying power – and, since he’s not playing the expectations game the way Mr. Edwards is, Iowa is not a must-win for him.
The result is that Mrs. Clinton is now in good spot in Iowa, her weakest early state: If she somehow wins it, she should have the momentum to win most every other state. And if Mr. Edwards wins it, then it only guarantees that the anti-Hillary vote will be spread out among two credible candidates in the subsequent early states. The only problematic Iowa outcome for her, it now seems, would be an Obama win, which would flush Mr. Edwards from the race, and give Mr. Obama a head of steam entering a one-on-one showdown with Hillary. But that is, for now, the least likely scenario.
And if Mr. Obama has complicated Mr. Edwards’ efforts, he’s practically choked the rest of the Democratic field to death. With the media fixated on Hillary vs. Barack and with Mr. Edwards snagging whatever press attention remains, there has been no room for Bill Richardson or Joe Biden or Chris Dodd to climb the ranks.
There’s also the Gore Factor. Take the former Vice President’s tired, loophole-riddled “denials” for what you will, but even if he secretly desires to make a late, white-knight entry into the race, Mr. Obama seems to be blocking him.
At this point, Mr. Gore would probably pose a stiffer challenge to Mrs. Clinton than Mr. Obama has been able to muster, mainly because Mr. Gore offers a specific, compelling, pressing message – and it doesn’t hurt that he has eight years of executive branch experience. But it’s hard to imagine him plunging into the race unless he was convinced that his entry would marginalize Messrs. Obama and Edwards and give him a clear, one-on-one showdown with Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Gore’s candidacy probably would knock Mr. Edwards out, but Mr. Obama would not go so easily – not with his robust (and record-setting) campaign treasury and the legions of impassioned, with-him-sink-or-swim supporters he already has. Mr. Obama’s continued viability poses a formidable obstacle to any Gore candidacy: to run, Mr. Gore would either have to take the gloves off to deflate him, or risk a futile split of the anti-Hillary vote. With Mr. Obama around, there won’t be the easy vacuum for Mr. Gore to fill that there otherwise might have been.
It should go without saying that the first caucus is still six months away, and that anything can happen in that time. But for now, Mr. Obama seems to be making it impossible for any Democrat to supplant him in second place – while not giving anyone much reason to think he knows how to replace Hillary in first place.