The good news for Hillary Clinton is that a vocal chunk of the opinion-shaping class has in the past few weeks embraced the inevitability of her nomination by the Democratic Party.
But she continues to battle the storyline that, more than any other would-be nominee, she’ll be poison in a general election. The theory is by now familiar: Mrs. Clinton’s image is so fixed and polarizing that she will struggle mightily to win over independent and wavering Republican votes—a critical task that wouldn’t be nearly as daunting for Democrats if they simply nominate one of her rivals.
“The thing with Hillary is that most people have their minds made up,” a skeptical Democratic county chairman from South Carolina was quoted as saying just this week.
He may be right. It’s absolutely conceivable that Mrs. Clinton could secure the Democratic nomination and retain her perilous unfavorable rating—which runs slightly under 50 percent in most polls—straight through Election Day 2008. But here’s the catch: There’s still a good chance she’d win anyway.
It may sound strange to say, but she’s looking increasingly like the Chuck Robb of 2008. Mr. Robb represented Virginia as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate for two terms, from 1989 until 2001. That he ever won a second term, though, remains one of the marvels of modern American politics, and the story and circumstances of that 1994 victory have some basic and significant parallels to the challenge Mrs. Clinton faces in 2008.
Like Mrs. Clinton now, Mr. Robb was called electoral poison as he approached the ’94 election. After winning his seat with 71 percent of the vote in 1988, his first term had been overwhelmed by scandal – specifically, a federal probe involving his aides’ secret and illegal recordings of phone conversations involving then-Governor Doug Wilder, Mr. Robb’s main intra-party rival. The grand jury ultimately declined to indict Mr. Robb (much to his surprise), but the highly public probe eroded the popularity he had accrued as Virginia’s governor in the 1980’s.
What’s worse, the phone call scandal brought to light a string of highly embarrassing accounts of philandering by Mr. Robb, who was married to the daughter of Lyndon Johnson. After presenting himself to the public as a ramrod straight military man, Mr. Robb stood accused of frequenting drug-fueled parties and carrying on with a Playboy model.
A year before the ’94 election, there was talk that Mr. Robb would be denied re-nomination by his party, perhaps in favor of Mr. Wilder. A poll showed the senator with a 39 percent favorable rating, compared to 48 percent unfavorable – bad numbers for an incumbent anywhere, but particularly for a Democrat in G.O.P.-friendly Virginia.
Granted, the reasons for Mrs. Clinton’s high negative ratings do not involve the kind of conduct Mr. Robb was suspected of. Nonetheless, her poll numbers a year before the election are roughly the same as his. And her challenge as the Democratic nominee would be the same as well: to persuade voters to check off the name of a candidate they don’t necessarily like.
Mr. Robb was able to pull of this improbable feat in 1994 thanks to the Republicans’ decision to nominate Oliver North, the star of the nationally televised Iran-Contra hearings in 1987. Mr. North was a favorite of the right and when he moved toward a Senate bid in the summer of 1993, polls actually gave him a slightly higher favorable rating than Mr. Robb.
But it didn’t last. Mr. North’s Iran-Contra liabilities allowed Mr. Robb to advance the audacious argument that he was more trustworthy than his G.O.P. foe.
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