Monday, January 07, 2008

The Clintons and the good old days

The Clintons have always had fond feelings about New Hampshire. Bill was down and out in January of 1992, seemingly destined to be roadkill, besieged at the time by stories about his draft avoidance and extra-curricular behavior. But then he shifted into sixth gear, charming the locals and out-working his opponents - and on the night of the primary, when he finished a respectable second, he dubbed himself "the Comeback Kid," and a star was born.

The saga of '92 is a living memory for many New Hampshire Democrats; I have met a number of people who still proudly display their Bill-and-me photos on their office shelves. More often than not Hillary is there as well, with her distinctive '92 hair band. And in this current campaign, Hillary has endeavored to contact virtually all the old comrades, seeking to tap the old magic.

But it doesn't appear to be working, at least according to a pair of stunning polls released yesterday, less than 48 hours before New Hampshire commences voting. The old magic seems to have been supplanted by the new.

A few days ago, Mark Penn, Hillary's chief strategist/pollster, circulated an email mocking Barack Obama for failing to get a bounce from his Iowa victory. Well, it looks like the bounce has arrived. Two new surveys suggest that Obama is on the verge of a surge that would seriously imperil her candidacy.

CNN/WMUR has Obama up by 10 points (39 percent to 29 percent) - after showing the race to be tied just one day earlier. And USA Today/Gallup has Obama in front by 13 points (41 to 28). Most noteworthy are the internal figures. According to the CNN/WMUR survey, not only is Obama outdueling Hillary among independent voters by a 2-1 margin (independents are permitted to vote in the primary), he's also winning among registered Democrats, 37 to 34 percent. He's just as strong among women voters, 35 to 34 percent. And he's winning thematically as well; by a margin of 67 to 24 percent, the likely primary voters said the promise of change trumps candidate experience as the most important criterion. Meanwhile, the USAT/Gallup poll shows Obama with a 3-1 lead among voters under the age of 35.

If both polls are essentially accurate - plus, a new Marist poll this morning has Obama up by eight, while a new Zogby poll puts the margin at 10 - then it's hard to see how Hillary can become the new Comeback Kid. For starters, second place is not an option as it was for Bill (unless she finishes in a virtual tie). She's also in a totally different position than her husband; she is perceived by many voters as the status quo figure in this race, someone who seeks restoration of the family dynasty - whereas, in '92, Bill was the "change" candidate, the upstart outsider in that year's "change" election.

And, just as importantly, Hillary is facing tougher competition than her husband did. For all of Bill's legendary political skills, it's important to remember that his '92 rivals in New Hampshire were underwhelming. He was up against the likes of Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (whose campaign was already imploding that winter), Iowa Senator Tom Harkin (who was soon to be gone), and ex-California Gov. Jerry Brown. The party's heavier hitters - particularly Mario Cuomo, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and a Tennessee senator by the name of Al Gore - had taken a pass on the '92 campaign.

None of Bill's competitors could match his energy or charisma, or his claim that he alone represented the changing of the guard. Hillary doesn't have the same luxuries this time; whereas Bill always billed himself as a generational leader who would draw young voters, Hillary is apparently failing on the front. It's worth noting that the current 21-year-old New Hampshire voter was only five when Bill first charmed New Hampshire - hardly the stuff of memories.

All told, Hillary is now perceived as an establishment player, and she's paired against an energized, charismatic opponent who seems poised to lead an historic movement. The odds of another Clinton comeback seem to be narrowing with each passing hour.