Thursday, January 25, 2007

"What Hillary Must Do to Win in Iowa "

David Yepsen, Des Moines Register:
A new poll released Wednesday highlights the challenges Hillary Clinton faces in Iowa as she starts campaigning for caucus votes this weekend.

She trails John Edwards, Barack Obama and Tom Vilsack in a poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers taken by Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based public-relations firm.

Edwards gets 25 percent of the vote, Obama receives 17 percent and Vilsack 16. Clinton follows with 15, Joe Biden with 4, John Kerry, 3; Wesley Clark, 2; and Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich each with 1 percent. There are 15 percent who are undecided.

(The poll of 600 likely Democratic caucus-goers was taken Jan. 19 to 21, before Kerry dropped out of the race, and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. One caveat: Strategic Vision is a Republican-leaning firm, but its polling data are considered credible. Its numbers are mirrored by a recent Zogby poll of caucus-goers that also shows Edwards ahead with the others trailing.)

The most charitable spin you can put on the numbers for Clinton is that she's not really in fourth place but is in a statistical tie for second with Obama and Vilsack. Even so, a second-place showing on caucus night in Iowa for the person seen as the front-runner nationally would be interpreted by the political community as a setback.

So what must she do in Iowa?

• Spend time on task. Clinton has not been in Iowa since 2003. Others are frequent visitors. While this trip is good, she needs to make more. Caucus-goers like to see candidates up close.

• Get out of the bubble. That "up close" part may be difficult for Clinton. A celebrity candidate like her has to rent high school auditoriums for events. There are also security issues that require having lots of burly people around wearing earplugs.

(So much for the historical one-on-one campaigning by candidates in living rooms, something that's rapidly becoming a thing of the past.)

Still, to the extent she can, if Clinton can campaign the way she did when she and her husband were first running for office in Arkansas, her numbers will improve.

• Focus on electability. Polls show just about everybody knows Clinton and has an opinion of her. Some are energized by the prospect of the first woman president, and she'll attract support from those who say "it's about time" and women who say "it's our turn." This gives her an ability to attract new, first-time caucus-goers.

But she also registers some of the highest negative ratings of any candidate in the race. Often you'll hear Democrats say things like, "I like Hillary Clinton, but..." They don't want to rehash her husband's presidency or Whitewater or other troubles. Or they just don't think she can win a general election. (Electability is always an issue with party activists, just like health care or the economy.)

• Move left on Iraq. Her biggest problem may be her position on the Iraq war. Many Democrats don't like her vote for it, and these peace Democrats are finding better champions in Edwards or Obama. Anti-war activists will need some reassurances and explanations from her.

• Build precinct organizations. She doesn't need to worry about people who dislike her. She's still got enough fans that if she can locate them and turn them out on caucus night, she'll do quite well.
Only about 120,000 activist Democrats are likely to show up at their caucuses. Divided among half-a-dozen viable challengers, a candidate could win the thing with just 25,000 to 30,000 votes. (Although if I were a candidate, I might bump up my turnout targets, since all the frenzy around the 2008 presidential election may make for a — dare I say "surge" — of people on caucus night.)

But she is behind in the organizational game. While other candidates have been traveling to the state and lining up talent, Clinton's absence has hurt her recruiting.

And since her husband bypassed Iowa in 1992 because Tom Harkin was running, her national operation may be long on people with experience in New Hampshire primaries but no depth in Iowa caucus fights.
Howie says: Yepsen knows his stuff. Other candidates may want to take notes.

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