Columns » Warwick Sabin

Hillary can win

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Even before this year’s elections were decided, speculation about the 2008 presidential sweepstakes was well underway.

Forget about the impending Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress. The Oct. 23 edition of Time magazine ran a cover story titled “Why Barack Obama could be the next president.”

So it’s not surprising that Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California officially announced their presidential ambitions only hours after Election Day. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, another Republican, joined the fray a few days later.

More will likely follow in the coming months, because there is no shortage of other potential candidates in both parties. But the pivotal question is: Will Hillary Clinton run?

Everyone close to her that I’ve talked with — friends, staff and Democratic donors — thinks she is going to do it. And all of her actions point in that direction.

The New York Times recently reported that she has no plans to dismantle the campaign organization that just got her re-elected to the U.S. Senate. She has $10 million left over in her accounts, and she has favors to cash in around the country.

“Even as she campaigned for her own re-election, Hillary headlined 131 events in 57 different cities on behalf of other Democrats,” said Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s campaign director.

But as it becomes increasingly apparent that she will run for president, the next question is: Can Hillary Clinton win?

Everywhere I go, people usually say no, and always for the same reason: she is too “polarizing.” Even those who want her to win think she can’t overcome all of the people who don’t like her.

I happen to think that is one of her greatest advantages going into the campaign.

After all, politics is often a game of expectations. In Clinton’s case, she would enter a general election race with very low expectations, because she is thought to be a divisive, radical liberal.

But when she ran for the Senate in 2000, Clinton eroded that caricature through her moderate, centrist campaign. Once in office, she co-sponsored bills with conservative Republicans like Sens. Bill Frist and Lindsey Graham, voted to authorize the war in Iraq and generally earned a reputation as an effective, hard-working lawmaker.

If she continues to project this kind of steady and competent leadership during a presidential campaign, those expecting a shrill extremist will probably end up saying, “You know, she’s not as bad as I thought.”

The expectations game may help Clinton from the other direction, too, because she won’t be running in a vacuum. All of the adulation heaped upon Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican frontrunner, will magnify every mistake and misstatement he is certain to make. McCain can be a bit testy when challenged, and he has never had to endure the onslaught of a full national campaign. Clinton, on the other hand, has been put through the ringer numerous times, personally and professionally. There is nothing they can throw at her that we haven’t already heard.

According to Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post, the other top GOP contenders are Giuliani and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (like Clinton, both are moderate Northeasterners), and Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich (neither of whom have the foreign policy experience of a current senator and former first lady). And regardless of who wins the party’s nomination, will the country be willing to elect another Republican to the White House after the failures of the last six years?

Then there is the straightforward electoral math. To win, Clinton merely needs to take all of the states that voted for Al Gore in 2000, plus Florida (which Gore arguably won in the first place), or all of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004, plus Ohio (which this year elected a Democratic governor and U.S. senator).

What about gender? Clinton’s argument that Americans are ready for a woman president will be serendipitously helped by Nancy Pelosi’s turn as the first female speaker of the House (third in line to the presidency). Also, more than 40 women have served as heads of state around the world since 1953, in nations like India, Israel, Germany and the U.K.

Of course, no one credibly challenges Clinton’s qualifications or ability to govern. She is as smart, knowledgeable and experienced as they come.

Her detractors are therefore reduced to disparaging her “electability” based on unproven and unquantifiable factors. With that in mind, Clinton’s biggest challenge is not the general election, but rather the primaries. She has to overcome the misplaced fears and convince Democrats that she can win.

Ironically, however, she can’t project too much brash confidence. She needs to be underestimated so she can prove everyone wrong, just as she did when she won her Senate race in 2000.

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