As she figures out how to cope with the shifting field in the 2008 Presidential contest, Hillary Clinton might do well to familiarize herself with Al Gore’s primary playbook from 2000.
The predicament she now faces—brought on by the twin revelations that Barack Obama is actually serious about running and that John Edwards is actually popular—is startlingly similar to the one Mr. Gore overcame to win his party’s nomination.
Mrs. Clinton, like Mr. Gore before her, owned the formative months leading up to the primary campaigning season as the singular, Mondale-esque favorite for her party’s nomination, a status owed to the perception of her overpowering inevitability. But as it did for Mr. Gore, that inevitability is giving way to unforeseen political peril.
She’s hardly an underdog, but the signs sure are ominous: a fourth-place finish in an Iowa poll two weeks ago, a feeble 22 percent showing in a New Hampshire survey, and a lack of the freshness and excitement surrounding the initial maneuverings of Mr. Obama and, to some extent, Mr. Edwards.
Mrs. Clinton’s standing now contrasts sharply with her popularity during the last Presidential election, when trial-heat polls clear through 2003 showed her, without lifting a finger, easily lapping what was largely an anonymous Democratic field. And that was how it was supposed to go this time, too. As countless media analyses told us, with her celebrity, money and machinery, Hillary would dwarf the field until early in ’08, at which point a second-tier candidate would finally emerge as the “anti-Hillary” choice. They’d joust for a bit, but it would be for show: In American Presidential politics these days, David can annoy Goliath, but he doesn’t win.
But that was when Hillary’s chief ’08 rivals had names like Kerry, Feingold and Biden. Now, her risk-averse blandness seems like a distinct liability in the context of the Obama media storm. Political observers are also belatedly acknowledging the staying power of Mr. Edwards, who has spent the last two years relentlessly charming the party’s grassroots.
Instead of subsisting on inevitability through 2007, Mrs. Clinton is suddenly locked in a battle with a pair of viable foes.
Which brings us back to Al Gore, whose 2000 campaign, like Mrs. Clinton’s ’08 effort, was years in the making. At this same point eight years ago, there was talk of an uncontested nomination for Mr. Gore.
One by one, the shadow of Bill Clinton’s Vice President scared off some of the Democratic Party’s most ambitious names: Dick Gephardt, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, not to mention Jesse Jackson and Paul Wellstone. Only the arid and double-chinned “Dollar” Bill Bradley didn’t take the hint.
Mr. Gore—like Hillary, a practitioner of a public style that smacks of caution and condescension—soon found himself in a surprising dogfight. By the spring of 1999, Mr. Bradley had caught him in the polls in New Hampshire, and soon the onetime Knicks small forward was ahead in national polls, too. Amazingly, Mr. Bradley even out-raised Mr. Gore over the summer months, and as Iowa and New Hampshire neared, he actually looked like a front-runner.
And yet Mr. Gore ended up sweeping every single contested primary and caucus in 2000, a historic running of the table that might now offer clues to Mrs. Clinton on how to separate herself from Messrs. Obama and Edwards.
Mr. Gore, for instance, benefited from a strategic miscalculation by Mr. Bradley, who invested heavily in the lead-off Iowa caucuses, where he faced long odds, thereby inflating the value of the Vice President’s eventual victory there. Then, in New Hampshire, Mr. Gore received an assist from John McCain, who drew independent voters to the Republican primary like the Pied Piper. Otherwise, many of those same independents would likely have opted for Mr. Bradley, vaulting him past Mr. Gore.
But the main explanation for Mr. Gore’s comeback is simply that he took the gloves off, dusting off his notorious attack-dog act and shamelessly slandering Mr. Bradley with conventional (and yet maddeningly effective) scare tactics, warning that his opponent’s programs would, essentially, kill old people. It helped, too, that Mr. Bradley showed all the eagerness to fight back of Michael Dukakis.
Whether Mrs. Clinton would replicate such an unglamorous strategy is another matter. For one thing, criticism might not stick to Messrs. Obama and Edwards as easily as it did to Mr. Bradley. What’s more, the first viable female Presidential candidate is likely to squander whatever sympathy that status may afford her if she starts a mud fight with the boys.
For now, a safer path for Mrs. Clinton is to hope that her rivals fade on their own, or even better, that they turn their guns on each other and do her dirty work for her. The question, with little more than a year until Iowa, is how long she’s prepared to wait.