I taped "Hardball's Power Rankings" for Wednesday night, running down who's got the best shot to defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton, chosen by Chris Matthews Monday night as, no surprise, the Democrat most likely to get the nomination. Preparing for the segment made me focus a little more closely on the race to date.
Ironically it was on "Hardball" Sept. 26, the day of the Dartmouth debate, that I noted the media's role in creating the perception that Clinton had run a perfect campaign up to that point. It's complicated: She had in fact run a very good campaign, but paradoxically, I think she also benefited from low media expectations about how she'd do in the race. When real live voters got to know her better out on the campaign trail, they seemed to like her. They weren't as tuned in to her supposed negatives -- her occasional evasions, her triangulations, even her legendary marriage -- as reporters are. They certainly didn't have Clinton fatigue, the way the media had claimed. And despite suggestions that women voters might be toughest on the first serious woman candidate, and Hillary specifically, women have backed her strongly. (Lately, even college-educated professional women have come around.)
But it was obvious to me even six weeks ago that she was being set up for a fall. When I say "set up" I don't mean anything diabolical, and I'm not blaming sexism or Karl Rove or the MSM. It's just the dynamic of a race like this. The front-runner stumbles at some point. He or she can't keep exceeding expectations when expectations get their highest. Also, it's human (and media) nature: Nobody wants a coronation. Everybody wants drama. And in the debate last week, and its aftermath, it happened: Clinton stumbled. I wrote about it at the time -- she seemed evasive, even rattled, at a few points, and she made a genuine mistake in seeming to disavow her support for giving illegal immigrants drivers' licenses. She hasn't quite recovered yet. She admitted to CNN's Candy Crowley that it wasn't her best performance. In CNN and NBC polls taken since the debate, her support dipped a little. So it's the moment for Barack Obama and John Edwards -- and the other candidates, though less likely -- to make a move.
The question is, will they and can they. The conventional wisdom has to give Obama the best shot -- he's got the most money, the freshest story, and in a year when everyone, including many Republicans, is craving someone new, he is that guy. I'm just not sure he can shoot beyond the 25 percent or so of the Democratic electorate to grab the lead. I was impressed that he came out of the debate last week with a strong proposal to negotiate with Iran, not just saber-rattle. I think Clinton's vote to term Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group was her worst move yet; but unfortunately Obama wasn't in the Senate to vote against it that day. He's still igniting passion in crowds, though some donors are said to have growing doubts. I share his desire for a new politics, moving beyond polarization, but I'm starting to doubt his ability to create it. Even on "Saturday Night Live," a great gift to Obama (and Clinton was crazy to cancel her planned appearance), he seemed stiff and uncomfortable. I'm still not sure he can grab this second chance Clintons' bad week has offered him.
In a lot of ways John Edwards is best positioned to surge if the collective Democratic field succeeds in tarring Clinton as the establishment candidate. He's betting everything on Iowa, and he could still win there despite Clinton's lead in the polls. He's willing to become the voice of the disaffected Democratic base, people angry about the war, about torture, about FISA, about healthcare, about silly saber-rattling against Iran. And unlike Obama, he doesn't look uncomfortable taking direct shots at Clinton, with that sunny smile on his face. I don't count him out.
But I still think the race is Clinton's to lose, and the media, having once overstated the perfection of her campaign, is now overstating its troubles. Her stumble also offered a second chance to Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, but no one has really grabbed it. In yesterday's CNN poll, Biden did triple his share of the Democratic vote -- but he only went from 1 to 3 percent. Dodd has certainly helped himself with bold stands on FISA and Mukasey, but it still might be too late. Richardson consistently looks like he's running for vice president. I will get a lot of mail, but I don't give Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel any chance to build into a solid challenger, although my candidates, according to the USA Today poll Rebecca Traister wrote about, were Gravel, Edwards and, yes, Kucinich.
I have said all along that opposition and adversity actually help Clinton. I thought it was good for her that Obama entered the race and knocked the crown of inevitability off her head. All the attention, and the attacks, can conceivably help her if she can fight back in a dignified, convincing way. Especially attacks from the media. A lot of people thought Bill Clinton's remarks Monday were misguided and unhelpful, especially my friends in the anchor chairs at MSNBC, but I happen to disagree. I didn't hear Clinton saying what Hillary was experiencing was the same as the Swift-boating of John Kerry or the smearing of Max Cleland, but rather warning Democrats that such attacks will come -- and reminding them the Clintons know how to fight them.
That's one thing the media doesn't seem to understand: Much of the Democratic base is still angry about the media's role in impeachment, and in giving George W. Bush a relatively free ride to his first term while savaging Al Gore. The Democratic base distrusts Clinton for her Iraq and Iran vote, but it also knows she's a fighter with a team that has taken on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- and come out on top. I don't think Republicans, pundits or other Democrats should underestimate the base's yearning for someone who will fight tough. That could be Clinton's best asset in the months to come, but I don't expect many in the media to be able to see it.