How Clinton Lost Her Invincibility

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Hillary Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire

When Hillary Clinton launched her campaign nearly a year ago, the media buzz deemed it near impossible for the likes of Barack Obama and John Edwards to overcome her daunting campaign machine. The endorsements, the money, and the cream-of-the-crop strategists combined with the former First Lady’s incumbent image to make her the clear-cut choice of the Democratic Party establishment.

But the onset of the Iowa caucuses finds Clinton aides racing to lower expectations, bracing for a possible loss there and contemplating a dwindling lead in the polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina. So, what has stripped the mighty Clinton campaign juggernaut of its image of invincibility?

For one thing, it has been a victim of the media hype it helped create. The campaign’s warnings that Iowa was going to be a tough state for Clinton fell mostly on deaf ears. "Iowa was always going to be a challenge and we consistently said that," says Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. "Nobody hands anyone a presidential nomination." But her campaign also failed to invest in Iowa until it was nearly too late. While Obama and Edwards spent the better part of the year moving in hundreds of staff and building relationships with grassroots Democratic constituencies, Clinton in the last month belatedly added a hundred staffers.

And while the Clinton campaign hired the best and brightest faces to run its Iowa shop, there’s only so much that can be done without the resources or the candidate. A month away from the caucuses, Clinton had spent 52 days in state, visiting just 38 counties compared with the 99 visited by Edwards and the 68 by Obama. Since then, her campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle has moved out to Iowa to personally oversee the operation here, while Clinton has spent an additional 11 of the last 14 days in the state, adding another 14 county visits.

"She has never really been ahead here in Iowa," says Arthur B. Sanders, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines and author of Losing Control: Presidential Elections and the Decline of Democracy. "Her national lead made it easy to assume she would win here as well, especially since her national campaign gave off an image of her 'inevitable' victory. And a national press that had not spent time here did not really understand how different the situation was here."

Clinton has also shaken up her message in recent weeks, trying on different hats: angry Hillary; warm-and-fuzzy mommy Hillary; commander-in-chief Hillary; insurgent change-candidate Hillary. "It's a very close race in Iowa, and quite naturally, the Clinton campaign has decided to throw in everything it's got, plus the kitchen sink," says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. "She’s both the candidate of change and the candidate of experience, the candidate with a hard side and a soft side, and the candidate of the establishment past and the progressive future. Maybe voters are getting confused, or maybe she’s patching together just enough voters to win or tie. We'll all find out together on January 3rd."

In the last week, Clinton straddled both the past and future. She’s paraded an impressive stream of former Clinton Administration officials — including former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former Veteran Affairs Secretaries Togo West and Hershel Gober, former NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark and, of course, her husband, President Bill Clinton — through Iowa while declaring herself an agent of change. "Somebody said at one of my events a little while ago, ‘You know, it looks like it takes a Clinton to clean up after a Bush,’ and I’m ready for the job if that’s what it takes," Clinton said at a town hall event in Johnston, Iowa, last week.

In harkening to the 1990s, Clinton risks alienating voters who want change. The majority of likely Democratic caucus-goers, 56%, believe change is more important than experience, according a December 19 ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely caucus-goers. Of those, half said they support Obama and 23% are committed to Edwards. Clintongarnered only 15% of the change vote. Conversely, 33% of those polled said they preferred experience over change, and Clinton led amongst those voters, 49% to Edwards’ 15% and Obama’s 8%.

Wolfson argues that it takes experience to bring about change: "Hillary brings a lifetime record of accomplishments to this campaign — and yes, some of them were during the '90s. We think voters are asking — at a time when every candidate is talking about change — who actually has a record of accomplishing it their entire adult life?"

Next week, Clinton will roll out her final pitch to Iowan voters, a tour entitled 'Time to Pick a President’ in which she’s expected to underline her experience in the White House and promise to restore the nation's good times. "Her closing argument is that America faces huge challenges and has enormous opportunities, and that the nation needs a President with the strength and experience to lead on day one and make the changes we need," Wolfson says. The jury's still out on whether the Democratic base in Iowa will buy the idea of insider experience as an effective force for change. But not for long.