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Clinton Pushes Electability Argument

With the Iowa caucuses now just 23 days away, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign is using the electability argument as a cudgel against Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

In a hastily-organized conference call this afternoon, which just happened to be scheduled at the same time that Rep. Carol Shea Porter (D-N.H.) was formally endorsing Obama, a group of Clinton surrogates praised Clinton as the lone candidate in the field who can win the White House back for Democrats. And, while they initially avoided any direct shots at Obama, by the end of the call those came too.

"I don't understand a candidate who seems to think he can offer one position in the early stages of his career and then when he reaches a position of national election he can change a position," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas).

Asked later to expand on that sentiment, Jackson Lee cited Obama's stance on gun control. "If you are a Senator or state senator who talked about banning all guns...and then all of a sudden you are altering that position or seemingly altering that position....that is inconsistent," she said.

The other Clinton surrogates were far more circumspect about naming names when it came to electability. Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) dodged a question on whether or not Obama was qualified to be commander in chief and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones said that her support of Clinton had little to do with Obama.

Even as the conference call was going on, the Clinton campaign e-mailed out a press release entitled: "Obama Forced to Defend Electability in Face of New Poll & Discovery of Questionnaire." The release cited a new CBS/New York Times poll that showed 63 percent of Democratic primary voters believe Clinton has the best chance of winning the White House back for Democrats in 2008, while just 14 said Obama was Democrats' best chance and 10 percent said the same of former Sen. John Edwards. (That same poll showed Clinton with a 17 point lead over Obama, down from 28 points in an October CBS/NYT poll.)

The results of the CBS/NYT poll are consistent with other data gathered since the race began. Clinton -- by a wide margin -- is seen as the candidate best able to take back the White House in 2008, a sentiment that has been largely unaffected by Obama's rise in polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally.

And yet, poll after poll shows Clinton with the highest negatives of any of the Democratic candidates -- numbers that have fueled her rivals' argument that she is simply too divisive to win a general election.

It's a fascinating paradox that seems to suggest that Democrats believe Clinton is their strongest nominee even if they don't personally like her all that much.

As we get inside of three weeks to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, it seems likely that the Clinton campaign will target just these voters. At issue is whether voters dislike Clinton so much that they are willing to vote for someone who they believe doesn't have as good a chance of winning the presidency or whether this segment of voters will, in essence, hold their collective noses and cast a vote for Clinton in the belief it will get them the Oval Office back.

It gets back to the head (Clinton) versus heart (Obama) conversation we have been having with ourselves and all of you since this race started.

In a traditional primary election we would expect the heart candidate to win out, as those most likely to vote in these early contests tend to be more idealists than pragmatists. But, this is no ordinary election. As we saw in 2004 with the primary victory of Sen. John Kerry (the ultimate 'head' candidate), the dislike of President Bush was so strong that nominating a candidate who they believed has the best chance of ousting the incumbent played paramount importance. The dislike of President Bush has only grown in the past three years as Democrats realize again how crucial controlling the White House is in pushing their agenda for the country -- a realization that should work in Clinton's favor.

That said, Kerry's loss burned those voters who in their hearts of hearts probably favored former Gov. Howard Dean. (Vt.). Does that experience make them less likely to go with their heads again? And, with Bush out of office no matter what, is there still such a premium on electability?

So many questions. And three weeks (at least) before we get some answers.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 11, 2007; 3:37 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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