NEW YORK – It's been a tough week for Sen. Clinton. While Sen. John Edwards is attracting union endorsements like bears to honey, Sen. Obama is collecting the bright lights of Oprah, Broadway, and influential battleground politicos. Worse, both men are probably gloating over the news of her tainted campaign contributors. Now, after six weeks of "All Hillary, all-the-time" press coverage, Sen. Obama has surpassed her news hits, and Edwards has her locked in a virtual tie.
The challenge, however, for both Obama and Edwards is to keep differentiating their messages from each other and from Sen. Clinton, while simultaneously harmonizing on the very real issue of her likability ratings, particularly in the American Heartland. For Edwards this means pounding hard on trade, economic opportunity, and a willingness to fight the status quo on behalf of a truly threatened middle class.
For Obama, this means hammering Sen. Clinton on her record beyond that infamous vote for the war – and demonstrating the need for an outsider to clean up the Capitol.
Wait a minute. Sen. Clinton is the frontrunner. All of this is moot. Right? Not necessarily.
Sen. Clinton came into the race with several major structural advantages. As a sitting senator and the former First Lady, Sen. Clinton has a large corps of loyal supporters anxiously awaiting her turn in the Oval Office, an extraordinarily talented political organization, international name recognition, one of the most successful fundraising machines in U.S. political history, and of course – Bill.
To her campaign’s credit, Hillary for President is running on all twelve cylinders. Right? She’s topping every national and state primary poll. Heck, she’s leading all of the hypothetical head-to-head match-ups with every possible Republican nominee. Clearly, it’s Sen. Clinton’s turn and her campaign needs to start vetting the short lists for her cabinet and settling on a role for the First Gentleman. So what’s the problem?
We see five challenges ahead for Sen. Clinton:
- Electability. Many Democrats doubt her ability to win the general election. And, with Senators Obama and Edwards each polling significantly higher against the likely Republican nominees, their candidacies are garnering greater attention. Democrats are cognizant that the general election will not be fought on the coast, but in the Purple and Magenta battleground states of America's heartland. Can Hillary win Ohio? And, with so many senate seats in play, who will have longer coattails?
- Labor. In gradually moving her dialog away from the Democratic Leadership Council's traditional orthodoxy of support for relatively unfettered free trade, and criticizing some of Globalization's shortcomings, Sen. Clinton is simultaneously picking up both endorsements – and attracting greater scrutiny for her support of outsourcing. These questions, and rank and file support, have helped Sen. Edwards capture a much larger swath of union endorsements. For, Edwards this means a greater perception of electability, and the ground support needed to remain competitive in both the Democratic primaries and the general election.
- The Base. As Howard Dean knows, an energized base and celebrity endorsements are no guarantee of primary success. But, and this is a big one, in a crowded field, you need an energized base to win the general election. John Kerry may have won the Democratic primaries, but he failed to really energize the base in the general election. Unless something changes, and Hillary is the nominee, Democrats may support her, but she won't have the kind of active base that either Obama or Edwards are sure to attract. If she can't connect to the Base soon, it's going to be tough slogging next September.
- The Economy. With an economy starting to shed jobs, a housing market in free fall, tightening credit, and the possibility of recession, voters of all stripes will be looking for "change." As the most well-known candidate, in either party, Sen. Clinton represents a return to "The Clinton Era" – not "change." And, this is a critical point, The Clinton Era may have seemed "peaceful" from a national security perspective – and prosperous for residents of New Economy Blue States – for working class whites in many Red, Purple and Magenta States, median household income was flat or fell from 1998-2000. For those voters, The Clinton Era may not represent giddiness and good times. It represents outsourcing, Globalization, and plant closings.
- The Brand. Hillary's campaign trying to position her as a model of “Strength and Experience.” The problem with this positioning is that its neither credible, nor differentiating, nor compelling. On the Democratic side, Gov. Richardson, Senators Dodd, Biden, even Mike Gravel and Rep. Kucinich easily surpass Clinton's experience as elected officials. If "experience" was the driver in this election, at least two of them might be frontrunners. On the "strength" side, voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq, is not necessarily a positive. No, to hawkish Americans, the leading Republicans represent “strength" and all of them surpass Clinton in terms of "experience." No. This is an election about "change." Edwards and Obama have branded themselves as change agents, differentiating on this riff only in terms of tenor and direction. While Cokie Roberts adroitly observes that Clinton, as a woman, represents tremendous "change," in and of itself, and that her campaign is trying to diffuse the enormity of this proposition by emphasizing her "strength," we feel that she has lost something in the process – a sense of who Hillary is as a person and a brand. Sen. Clinton's campaign is trying to please so many micro-targeted segments, they may have forgotten to build a compelling narrative about who she really is, how she will change America, and why that matters to the middle class voters in Ohio. Perhaps, they ought to go with her ultimate strength. She's the first woman who might be president – and maybe that is the change voters demand.