Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Clinton Accuses Iowa Questioner Of Being A Plant

Seemingly small gaffes or comments can prove devastating in Presidential campaigns, as George Romney found out when he said he had been "brainwashed" on a visit to Vietnam, or Edmund Muskie found when he cried in responding to an attack on his wife.

It took a few days in each instance for the incident to be widely noticed, but when it was, its consequences for the candidate were very serious.

Well, in the tight campaign leading up to the Iowa caucuses, with the latest Des Moines Register poll showing, among likely caucus participants, Hillary Clinton at 29%, John Edwards at 23% and Barack Obama at 22%, two gaffes have occurred in recent days, and the potential is there, in each instance, for damage. One of the incidents did not even involve a candidate himself, but his wife.

First, Clinton lost her temper with an adverse questioner on Sunday at a campaign event in the small town of New Hampton, Iowa, and told him she suspected his question was a plant. The questioner, a citizen named Randall Rolph, denied it was, and Mrs. Clinton then gave him an apology of sorts, but also added she had grown suspicious because she had been asked the same exact question in three places.

The question had to do with why Clinton had voted for a Senate resolution urging the Bush Administration to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Rolph suggested this vote could be taken as an authorization for an attack on Iran. Mrs. Clinton said the "premise" of this question was wrong, and that all it meant were possible new sanctions. The vote had taken place in response to the Ahmadinejad visit to the U.S. that same week.

Still, any Clinton vote, even tacitly siding with hawkish sentiments in the Bush Administration could easily cost her some support in Iowa, where the turnout in the caucuses tends to be liberal. And the Clinton campaign is by no means that solid in Iowa, which, on Jan. 3, will cast the first votes of the 2008 race. The Des Moines Register poll shows, in part, that if either Edwards or Obama were to throw his support in Iowa to the other, Clinton could find herself in a minority. I'm not saying this is likely to happen, but, at least, theoretically it is a possibility, and Clinton could be hurt if her opponents were to combine against her, especially on a challenge to her more-or-less centrist position on the war.

Clinton has been careful so far, and there have been few cracks in her skillful avoidance of marking out too controversial a position on anything. She is keeping the press somewhat at arms length. Reporters do not ride with her on her campaign bus, and some frustration is beginning to show up in the press corps about her perceived inaccessibility. That too could exacerbate the rare incident that does occur, such as the exchange with Randall Rolph.

The other miscue came from Obama's wife, Michelle, who suggested in an offhand comment a few days ago that the Obama campaign would be "over," if he did not do well in Iowa.

This was a silly statement, because Iowa has not always even proved a good predictor of the New Hampshire primary vote, much less of the final outcome in a fight for a Presidential nomination, and Obama would certainly want to fight on in a few primaries before calling it quits, even if he were not to do well in the state.

Nonetheless, Michelle Obama's comment could, if widely noticed, which so far it has not been, prove hurtful, because it seems to mark rising frustrations among Obama supporters that he has not been gaining ground on Clinton in national poll matchups. Last week, in fact, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll, Obama fared his worst yet, trailing Clinton by a whopping 53% to 20%. And, for the first time, he has fallen behind Clinton in national fundraising.

The way Presidential campaigns go, small molehills can easily become large mountains.

On the Republican side in Iowa, by the way, the Des Moines Register poll showed Mitt Romney leading, with Fred Thompson second, Mike Huckabee third and Rudolph Giuliani fourth. It was Romney 29%, Thompson 18%, Huckabee 12%, Giuliani 11% and John McCain 7%.

This is not good news for Giuliani, because a fourth place finish in Iowa, coupled with a Romney win, could hurt Giuliani in New Hampshire and on down the line. Giuliani now faces a difficult choice in Iowa: If he sinks more money into advertising, he makes the Iowa test a more significant one for himself, and if he doesn't, he may sink from sight, especially since one of the surprises in the Iowa Republican contest is the emergence of Huckabee, who ran second in a straw poll during the summer to Romney and whose rural background and general personality is proving to have some appeal in Iowa. Guiliani, former mayor of New York City, seems to be having some trouble relating to Iowa voters.

Clinton and Giuliani both, for the moment, seem to have solid positions in national polls. Both come into crowded races with very strong name identification, and that gives them, for now, a strong position in the Feb. 5 primaries in a number of big states. Still, they have to watch out, lest Iowa somehow end up throwing them for a loop and cost them momentum.

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