Why is Clinton struggling? Insert answer here

Too much Iowa or not enough? Too much Bill or too little? Or is Hillary just the Grinch?

By Tim Grieve

Published December 13, 2007 3:19PM (EST)

Success has many fathers, but failure is -- well, in politics, it's not so much an orphan as it is the evil spawn of ... somebody else.

It's way too soon to call Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign a "failure." The latest ABC/Washington Post poll still gives Clinton a commanding lead over Barack Obama and John Edwards among Democrats nationwide, and a lot can happen between now and when the polls close in California on Feb. 5. But the horse race in Iowa is as close as can be. John DiStaso of Manchester's Union Leader says New Hampshire has been transformed from Clinton's "firewall" to "a battleground, a free-for-all, and -- dare we say? -- a potential last stand for the former Granite State Democratic frontrunner."

Let the recriminations begin!

Theory No. 1: The Clinton campaign hasn't engaged enough in Iowa. The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut says Clinton is scrambling in Iowa because "her initial strategy did not put special emphasis on the caucuses, treating them as part of a national campaign. Obama, meanwhile, assembled a team of advisers with lengthy track records in Iowa and frequently made the short trip from his home state to lay the groundwork for his bid. Edwards never lost his grip on a core of supporters from his 2004 campaign. The chief concern, one person with immediate knowledge of the campaign said, was that Clinton simply did not visit Iowa enough over the summer and early fall -- a common complaint in national campaigns, but one that the Clinton team was unaccustomed to. No one on her senior staff has ever been through the grueling caucus process, which emphasizes direct contact with voters and is difficult to measure through traditional polls."

Theory No. 2: The Clinton campaign has been hurt by its engagement in Iowa. "For Hillary Clinton," Time's Mark Halperin and Amy Sullivan write, "engagement with voters in Iowa -- as well as her opponents' stepped-up attacks on her there -- has come at a cost. She remains the clear front runner nationally but looks much more vulnerable in the Hawkeye State, where the Democratic race has tightened to a three-way tie. Strikingly, the very advantages that Clinton enjoys elsewhere -- being seen as a strong leader with the most electability -- dissipate in Iowa. And she trails far behind Obama and John Edwards in perceptions that she has strong moral character, is inspiring and says what she believes. Voters also express emotional reactions to candidates, and on that front, Clinton's numbers in Iowa look different as well. She generates less hope and pride in Iowa than in New Hampshire -- or the nation as a whole -- and those Iowans who say she makes them feel afraid are far less likely to support her than are their counterparts at the national level."

Theory No. 3: It's Mark Penn's fault. Newsday's Glenn Thrush says unidentified "Clinton campaign insiders" are "increasingly questioning the cautious, poll-driven approach taken by" Clinton's top political advisor. "There are two people who have come up with this strategy -- one Hillary Clinton and one Mark Penn," Thrush quotes a "top Clinton ally" as saying. "Mark wanted to run her, basically, for re-election, and we are seeing what happened." Among the "campaign insiders" who'd like to see the campaign taking a more "aggressive" role: Clinton's husband, which brings us to ...

Theory No. 4: It's Bill Clinton's fault. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy keep their feet in both the "Clinton didn't understand Iowa" argument and the "her campaign is too cautious" theory, then they add a third of their own: "In a sign of internal strains, some of Mrs. Clinton's associates said they thought Mr. Clinton was struggling to make the adjustment from principal candidate to supportive spouse. In one example of this, Mr. Clinton asserted in Iowa last month that he had been against the war in Iraq 'from the beginning,' a statement more absolute than his public statements at the time. His remark produced a round of criticism that the Clintons too frequently parse their positions for political gain."

Theory No. 5: No, really, it's Bill Clinton's fault. Newsweek's Howard Fineman has another reason to blame Bubba: "If [Hillary] is going to argue that Obama is unelectable in the fall -- if she is going to argue that the Democrats cannot afford to take the risk on a Southside Chicago street organizer -- she had better get to it in the debate this week. But it is a tricky proposition. In a way, Hillary is trapped by her own do-it-yourself feminist ethos. She should have surrogates out there pounding away at Obama. I haven't seen them. And her husband, evidently, won't do it. Why should Bill Clinton tarnish his image as 'America's first black president' by attacking the man who might be the real deal? His circle is beginning to complain, loudly, about how Hillary is running her campaign. That kind of circular firing squad chatter is the first sign of a campaign headed into oblivion."

Theory No. 6: Hillary is too disciplined, especially at Christmas. The National Journal's Amy Walter says the "discipline of the well-oiled machine that is the Clinton campaign" may make "Beltway pundits and wonks swoon," but can turn off actual voters looking for a little inspiration instead. "It's like the difference between getting a vacuum cleaner for Christmas versus a nice piece of jewelry," Walter explains. "Sure, you really don't need the jewelry, but it's much more fun to open on Christmas morning. Clinton backers suggest that Iowa voters are practical people, the kind more likely to pick the vacuum. But until this year, the caucuses were held in late January, long after the New Year's confetti and Christmas trees were packed up. Does the fact that voters will be deciding on their choice during the season of 'hope' and 'inspiration' serve to propel Obama's message in a way that wouldn't happen at any other time of the year?"

We won't venture a guess on that one, but we'll leave the pundits and the circular firing squad with one other metaphorical possibility to ponder: When the Politico's Richard Cullen asked around the other day about the candidates' breakfast choices, among other questions, the Clinton campaign reported back that Hillary sometimes takes her coffee black and sometimes takes it with cream.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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