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Hillary Clinton's Spitzer Problem

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer addresses the media with his wife Silda Wall Spitzer at his office in New York, March 10, 2008. (Reuters.)

By Peter Baker
For a supporter, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer sure hasn't done Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton any favors lately.

After all, it was Spitzer who in the view of her advisers started the slide that led her to where she is today, fighting from behind for the Democratic presidential nomination. A question about his proposal to let illegal immigrants get driver's licenses tripped her up in a debate at the end of October and ended 10 months of unquestioned dominance in the nomination race.

Now, his apparent involvement with a prostitution ring has not only distracted from her efforts to take down the front-runner, Sen. Barack Obama, it has brought back unhelpful memories of her own husband's dalliances in office. There on cable television again were pictures of Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky. And the image of Spitzer's wife standing painfully by his side while he acknowledged unspecified wrongdoing could not help but remind some viewers, and voters, of Hillary Clinton's own stand-by-her-man moment.

How this will all play out remains unclear, of course. Spitzer chose not to step down yesterday in the face of some pretty sordid allegations, much as Bill Clinton resisted calls for his resignation in 1998 after news of his trysts with the onetime White House intern, which can only guarantee that the story will live on for a while, particularly in the hungry vortex of cable television, talk radio and the Internet. It may be that most voters long ago discounted Bill Clinton's infidelities when making their minds up about his wife's qualifications for president. It may be that voters conclude that Spitzer's indiscretions have nothing at all to do with whether Hillary Clinton can effectively serve as president. And it may be that Spitzer ultimately does resign, allowing the political dialogue to move on.

Yet this certainly is not the way Clinton's strategists would have mapped out this week on the campaign trail. They want voters to be thinking about that 3 a.m. phone call in terms of who is ready to handle a crisis in the White House, not in terms of where an unfaithful husband might be catting around town. And, sure enough, the late-night comedians wasted little time linking the Spitzer case to the Clintons. Jay Leno joked last night that Spitzer's scandal "means Hillary Clinton is now only the second angriest woman in the state of New York." David Letterman offered a Top 10 List of excuses Spitzer might cite, including the number one excuse: "I thought Bill Clinton legalized this years ago."

Hillary Clinton was asked about the case late yesterday and, predictably enough, tried to brush it off without comment. "I obviously send my best wishes to the governor and his family," she told reporters. Still, it is hard to imagine that will be the last time she is asked about it. She could hardly want to be there on camera, once again being asked to account for yet another man in her life who can't live up to his marriage vows. And what will Bill Clinton say if and when he is asked to comment?

Spitzer has been a bad-luck charm for Hillary Clinton to this point. His illegal immigrant driver's license proposal arguably became the first time she was thrown off her stride in this campaign. Fairly or not, her muddled answer at a debate in Philadelphia about whether she supported it or not played into a narrative promoted by her opponents that she is more about calculation than principle. That led to a bad patch for her that lasted all the way through the Iowa caucuses. Her advisers pinpoint that inartful two-minute answer as the moment when the race turned.

Now Spitzer may throw her off stride again at a moment she needs to keep her momentum going. And on top of that, even if he does spare her by resigning soon, that has a cost too -- one fewer superdelegate for her at the convention.

By Web Politics Editor  |  March 11, 2008; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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