Hillary Clinton rejoins the fray

After the hostage scare, the former first lady is back in Iowa worrying about polls and ice storms.


Walter Shapiro
December 3, 2007 2:42AM (UTC)

After Saturday night's low-key Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, Bill Richardson acknowledged the shadow that hovered over the room. "The debate was somber because of the hostage issue," he said. "It was on the minds of everybody. It was on my mind ... So I think that the tone was a little down, a little somber."

On Friday, minutes after the final hostage was released from Clinton's local headquarters in Rochester, N.H., the cable news shows were filled, as always, with empty chatter about the political meaning of it all. But here in Iowa, it is hard to detect much larger significance. The Saturday Des Moines Register -- the most influential newspaper in any early caucus or primary state -- played the story ("Man Frees Hostages at Clinton Office in N.H.") below the fold on page 18A. In the press room after the debate, Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster and top strategist, waved off a question about the incident's possible implication for the Jan. 3 caucuses, saying, "I don't know [if it means anything]. The events were the events, and we dealt with them as they occurred."

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Saturday would have been a weird day in Des Moines (or "Campaign Land" as it is fast becoming) even without the hostage ordeal in New Hampshire. An ice storm closed roads and the Des Moines Airport after a plane skidded off the runway -- while the frigid conditions also offered a reminder of the role that winter weather might play on caucus night. A midafternoon Bill Clinton speech in nearby Norwalk was iced out. Hillary Clinton's charter flight landed at the reopened airport just 35 minutes before the Black and Brown Forum. And the underfunded and understandably frazzled Joe Biden arrived midway through the debate and announced, "Seven-hour drive from Chicago and I don't have a plane."

The major topic in the press room Saturday night was neither the news-free debate nor Hillary Clinton's return to the fray. Rather, it was the release of the latest Des Moines Register poll, which showed Barack Obama (28 percent) narrowly leading Clinton (25 percent) and John Edwards (23 percent).

Before overreacting to these numbers, please read and memorize the Official Roadies Warning: There is no such thing as a reliable poll a month before the Iowa caucuses, because no one -- from top campaign insiders to the lowliest reporters -- has any idea who will participate. Everyone has self-serving guesses, but that is all they are. In fact, it is still too early for pollsters to employ what may be the best gauge for identifying likely caucusgoers: asking voters whether they know where to go on Jan. 3. But the state Democratic Party only released its 43-page list of caucus sites (nearly 1,200 separate locations) earlier this week, so that predictive question was not asked in the Register poll.

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In a rational world, the identity of the 44th president of the United States would not be heavily influenced by the early January weather in, say, Dubuque or Sioux City. But Clinton, in particular, is a weather-dependent candidate. Her formula for victory in Iowa depends on luring nonpolitical Hillary devotees, particularly middle-aged and elderly women, to a caucus. (To help ease anxiety among these first-timers, Clinton will be attending five "Take Your Buddy to Caucus" organizing events around the state today and tomorrow.) Some of these potential caucusgoers are wobbly -- not in terms of their allegiance, but in their mobility. Which is why Hillary Clinton may be worrying these days far more about blizzards and ice storms than the fabled Republican attack machine.

After Saturday night's low-key Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, Bill Richardson acknowledged the shadow that hovered over the room. "The debate was somber because of the hostage issue," he said. "It was on the minds of everybody. It was on my mind...So I think that the tone was a little down, a little somber."

On Friday, minutes after the final hostage was released from Clinton's local headquarters in Rochester, N.H., the cable news shows were filled, as always, with empty chatter about the political meaning of it all. But here in Iowa, it is hard to detect much larger significance. The Saturday Des Moines Register -- the most influential newspaper in any early caucus or primary state – played the story ("Man frees hostages at Clinton office in N.H.") below the fold on page 18A. In the press room after the debate, Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster and top strategist, waved off a question about the incident's possible implication for the Jan. 3 caucuses, saying, "I don't know [if means anything]. The events were the events and we dealt with them as they occurred."

Advertisement:

Saturday would have been a weird day in Des Moines (or "Campaign Land" as it is fast becoming) even without the hostage ordeal in New Hampshire. An ice storm closed roads and the Des Moines Airport after a plane skidded off the runway – while the frigid conditions also offered a reminder of the role that winter weather might play on caucus night. A mid-afternoon Bill Clinton speech in nearby Norwalk was iced out. Hillary Clinton's charter flight landed at the reopened airport just 35 minutes before the Black and Brown Forum. And the under-funded and understandably frazzled Joe Biden arrived midway through the debate and announced, "Seven-hour drive from Chicago and I don't have a plane."

The major topic in the press room Saturday night was neither the news-free debate nor Hillary Clinton's return to the fray. Rather, it was the release of the latest Des Moines Register poll, which showed Barack Obama (28 percent) narrowly leading Clinton (25 percent) and John Edwards (23 percent).

Advertisement:

Before over-reacting to these numbers, please read and memorize the Official Roadies Warning: There is no such thing as a reliable poll a month before the Iowa caucuses because no one – from top campaign insiders to the lowliest reporters – has any idea who will turn out. Everyone has self-serving guesses, but that is all they are. In fact, it is still too early for pollsters to employ what may be the best gauge for identifying likely caucus-goers – asking voters whether they know where to go to participate on the night on Jan. 3. But the state Democratic Party only released its 43-page list of caucus sites (nearly 1200 separate locations) earlier this week, so that predictive question was not asked in the Register poll.

In a rational world, the identity of the 44th president of the United States would not be heavily influenced by the early January weather in, say, Dubuque or Sioux City. But Clinton, in particular, is a weather dependent candidate. Her formula for victory in Iowa depends on luring non-political Hillary devotees, particularly middle-aged and elderly women, to a caucus. (To help ease anxiety among these first-timers, Clinton will be attending five "Take Your Buddy to Caucus" organizing events around the state today and tomorrow). Some of these potential caucus-goers are wobbly – not in terms of their allegiance, but their mobility. Which is why Hillary Clinton may be worrying these days far more about blizzards and ice storms than the fabled Republican attack machine.


Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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