"Taking Absolutely Nothing for Granted"
Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, sat down with a large group of reporters Thursday morning for a status report on the presidential campaign. "We are taking absolutely nothing for granted," he said soberly. Everything else Penn said during the hour-long session pointed to a campaign that feels increasingly confident of its position.
Penn's appearance at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast came about 12 hours after Barack Obama joined Jay Leno in Burbank for the Tonight Show. Asked by his host about how the campaign was going, Obama invoked one of the more embarrassing moments of the Bush presidency to tweak the Democratic frontrunner.
"Hillary," he said, "is not the first person in Washington to declare 'Mission Accomplished' a little too soon."
Penn may have had those words echoing in his ears when he showed up for his breakfast. Time and again, including in his opening statement, he went out of his way to underscore the Clinton's is a campaign at full battle stations, no matter what the national polls may show: "We are running a primary campaign. We are taking every primary seriously. This race is not over. Iowa is very competitive."
In between, Penn had difficulty concealing his sense of confidence, even pointing out that the increased attacks by Edwards and Obama reflect their nervousness rather than her vulnerabilities. "That is a spin that people have," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist.
Penn's most provocative moments came not when he talked not about Clinton's Democratic rivals but when he focused on the rising power of the women in politics and Clinton's potential to attract what would be a historic female turnout -- including Republican women and younger women.
"I think you'll see a tremendous influx into the political process of women who weren't as politically oriented," he said.
Women now make up about 54 percent of the electorate and Penn predicted this number could go higher if Clinton is the Democratic nominee. If that were to happen, another five or six states could open up on the electoral map that have been off limits to the Democrats in recent elections.
Republicans, he said, could be in for a nasty surprise if Clinton is the nominee. "I think the Republicans are not prepared for the loss of a substantial group of their Republican women voters," he said.
Penn argued that Clinton has an opportunity to produce sizeable defections -- as much as 24 percent of Republican women could end up voting for Clinton in a general election race. That, he said, would make "a major difference nationwide because of the emotional element of having the first woman nominee and that actually will be a major unexpected factor here that will throw the Republicans for a loop."
He cited one poll in which Clinton leads Rudy Giuliani in a hypothetical general election match up. In that survey, Clinton has an 18-point lead over Giuliani among women -- which he interpreted as almost insurmountable, given that women make up more than half the electorate.
John Edwards continues to argue that he is the most electable Democrat in 2008, that he can campaign effectively in places that Clinton cannot. When Penn was asked about resistance to Clinton's candidacy in the South, he said, "She's very strong in Arkansas." He also said she has a very good shot at winning Florida and noted that she is ahead in current general election polls in swing states like Ohio.
What about the West, where there also appears to be nervousness among Democratic officeholders about Clinton as the Democratic nominee? The race is in the early stages of development in those states and will look better later, he predicted. He added that western-state polls that may show her in trouble are probably lagging indicators.
Nor did Penn seem daunted at the prospect of a Clinton-Giuliani race. After all, he said, Giuliani is the one Republican she's run against (briefly) already. Giuliani's success to date in the Republican nomination battle is as much a reflection of the dissatisfaction among GOP voters with their entire field as with the former mayor's strength as a candidate. "I don't think Republicans have any real stars as candidates," he said.
He argued that Clinton is the one Democrat who could neutralize Giuliani's potential strength in the northeast and industrial battlegrounds. "She wipes him out in New York," he said, and would beat him in Pennsylvania. As for battleground states in the heartland, Penn predicted that Giuliani would not travel well from his New York roots.
Could Bill Clinton become a liability to Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. "He is a tremendously popular former president," Penn said, particularly among Democratic primary voters. "I could speculate on things all day," he added. "The reality is, he is a tremendous asset for this campaign and that's the way it has been for this last year and I believe will certainly continue to be that way."
His optimism was tempered seemingly only by the state of play in Iowa, but even there he sounded upbeat. Obama is a formidable opponent, he noted, and Edwards has had strong support there. But he added, "Iowans are less and less enthusiastic about Edwards and little by little they're gaining increased confidence in Senator Clinton and what kind of president she would be."
For a moment, he caught himself and started to back pedal. "There's no sense in this campaign in any way of taking anything for granted. We understand full well how quickly these things change." Then it was another surge of optimism. "The good news is that people are receiving her very well."
-- Dan Balz
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