ONE YEAR TO GO… …and many hurdles to clear

RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

U.S. ELECTIONS 2008

Hillary Clinton has turned the race into one where she is the candidate to beat. But there are obstacles ahead in this cross-country political marathon. Straits Times US Bureau chief Derwin Pereira reports

BILL CLINTON came back from the dead.

The then little-known Arkansas governor was virtually written off after losing the early primaries in January 1992, but stormed back with a string of victories in the Southern states three months later. He went on to secure not only the Democratic nomination but also the White House itself.

His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is unlikely to go through the same near-death experience.

As the strongest candidate in the field for the 2008 presidential race, she could clinch the Democratic nomination by February next year – while a fractious Republican camp may be heading for a long-drawn slugfest and its first convention fight for the first time since 1976.

Mrs Clinton has achieved a remarkable feat, turning one of the most open races in 80 years – there is neither an incumbent nor a vice-presidential candidate – into one where she is the candidate to beat.

But with one year to go, the race ahead will be a cross-country political marathon where the former first lady – like all the other contenders – will have to clear several hurdles before crossing the finish line into the White House.

The first major obstacle is the primaries.

Certainly, no other Democrat candidate has been in this strong a position in the last five contested Democratic contests except for Mr Walter Mondale in 1984 and Mr Al Gore in 1999. Both were vice-presidents.

But detractors argue that Mrs Clinton’s political pedigree is based almost entirely on her husband’s career, and the access to his contact books. Not surprisingly, there are doubts whether she can last the course.

History is telling. Those who have taken an early lead in the past have crashed. Democrat Howard Dean is the most recent example. Four years ago, just before the Iowa primary, national polls had him way ahead of Mr John Kerry, who went on to win the primaries.

An unseemly outburst at an election rally, where he let out a primal scream, led to questions about his reliability and ultimately cost him the nomination. Mrs Clinton is in the fray also with solid numbers on her side. If anything, her lead has increased over her two main challengers: Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

And she enjoys a modest lead over them in Iowa and New Hampshire – the first states to hold the primaries in January. She has formidable strengths: money, a firm grip over the party because of her vast political machinery and a close-knit circle of advisers and political operatives drawn from previous administrations. And that is not to mention her husband, who works the crowd with an ease that she lacks.

Harvard professor Thomas Patterson, a leading expert on US electoral politics, said: “Clinton is easily the best positioned Democrat at this time. She’s leading in the national polls and in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. If she wins handily in the first contest in Iowa, it will be hard to stop her.”

Her closest challenger in the party is the charismatic Mr Obama.

Articulate and personable, he has drawn massive crowds wherever he has travelled. If he pulls off an upset in Iowa, he might just cause Mrs Clinton to trip and fall even as she strives to keep up pace and momentum.

Yet despite the buzz surrounding his candidacy, he has remained nearly 20 percentage points behind her in polls. Inexperience is not his only handicap. For all the politically correct bluster from liberals, many observers say white America might also just not be ready to put a black in the Oval Office.

The front-loading of the primaries this time also favours the strongest candidate.

Traditionally, the process has given disproportionate power to states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But several others have caught on to the idea of starting earlier. More than 20 out of the 50 states, including vote-rich New York, New Jersey and California – have moved up their primaries to Feb 5 which has been dubbed “Super Duper” or Tsunami Tuesday.

Unlike the old primary system that stretches from January to June, the new schedule could end the official nomination process as quickly as it began for the Democrats, with the front-runner walking away from the winner-takes-all race.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, looks headed for a long and exhausting nomination battle. Mr Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, noted: “The Democratic race is a locomotive with Hillary Clinton’s face on it. On the Republican side, it looks like the TV show Survivor.”

Mr Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, is leading nationally but is closely trailed by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is leading in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But observers believe that even if Mr Romney, a Mormon and a successful businessman, clinches these early states, he might collapse in South Carolina to Mr Giuliani, paving the way for what could be a bitter slugfest between the two all the way to the Republican convention in September.

The Republicans were in a similar situation 30 years ago.

In 1976, Mr Gerald Ford pipped Mr Ronald Reagan for the party nomination but their protracted battle cost the Republicans dearly and Mr Ford ultimately lost the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

There are other potential pitfalls for Mr Giuliani. His liberal leanings – he backs abortion rights and gay marriage – might well cost him votes from the Republican right.

His chaotic private life could also count against him. He married his third wife in 2003 after an acrimonious and very public divorce from his second spouse.

For Mrs Clinton – if she gets past the primaries – the general election will be her real test. She has unbeatable name recognition, but also vulnerabilities. The scandals of the Clinton years – Whitewater, Travelgate and the Monica Lewinsky affair – incurred the wrath of American conservatives, leaving her with what pollsters call “high negatives” among voters.

And at a time when Americans have deep-seated antipathy towards Congress and the Washington political class, her “insider” status leaves her open to charges that little would change in Washington if she is elected.

Then there is the gender issue.

Are Americans ready for a female president? Only one other woman, also a Democrat, has ever come close to sitting in the Oval Office. Ms Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice-president alongside Mr Mondale on the party’s ticket in 1984.

They lost in a landslide to Mr Reagan and Mr George H.W. Bush, but not before a Denver Post columnist had sneered about what might happen should Ms Ferraro somehow become president. “What if she is supposed to push the button to fire the missiles and she can’t because she has just done her nails?”

The gender issue will surely rear its ugly head again.

While Mrs Clinton has worked hard to overcome her image as cold and humourless, she has been vulnerable in TV debates and could well stumble again in a series of presidential debates on television in the weeks running up to the polls. In the past, these last hurdles have determined whether elections are won or lost.

And as the race picks up pace, things are likely to get more bruising. In a three-way debate on Thursday, Mrs Clinton lashed out at Mr Edwards for “throwing mud” Republican-style while Mr Obama accused her of being evasive.

As of now, however, she looks as good as the winner in November as national polls show her ahead of all her Republican rivals, a dramatic turnaround from the first four months of this year where she trailed Mr Giuliani.

Two critical factors may yet propel her into the White House.

One is Iraq. Mrs Clinton’s Senate vote to authorise the Iraq invasion in 2003 leaves her vulnerable among anti-war voters. But she has since moved closer to the centre. And if the death toll rises in Iraq, voter sentiment will harden against the Republicans.

Secondly, an early knockout punch in the primaries could force Democrats to close ranks behind her way before its national convention in August, leaving a wounded Republican Party tottering behind.

Whichever Republican candidate will also have to contend with the prevailing mood in America. He will be running against public sentiment which has shifted significantly against a Republican Party that was thrashed resoundingly in last year’s congressional elections.

Mrs Clinton – or any other Democratic contender in 2008 – will be racing with it.

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