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The Whiff of Inevitability

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Those of you who've been following the presidential race as closely as I have (and, really, who hasn't?) are no doubt aware of the conventional wisdom surrounding Hillary Clinton's candidacy – namely that she now appears unbeatable. Pundits and reporters alike have been buzzing about her insurmountable lead – often clocking in in the high double digits – over her next two closest rivals, Obama and Edwards, for what has seemingly been weeks now.

She has been widely praised as a “disciplined” and “polished” candidate whose policy expertise and carefully crafted speeches have earned her both the support of Democratic voters and the enmity of her Republican rivals – with frontrunners Giuliani and Romney tussling over who can reposition himself as the most virulent anti-Hillary candidate. In fact, many have practically written off her competition – portraying the upcoming New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus as little more than stepping stones on her way to being crowned the nominee at the Democratic convention.

Students of presidential history will recall a similar period in 2003 when all signs seemed to point to a Howard Dean nomination. Armed with a treasure trove of campaign cash and the rabid support of the emerging netroots, Dean's victory in the early primaries seemed almost an afterthought; John Kerry, on the other hand, was struggling just to remain afloat - his candidacy having hit one rough patch after another. Dean's disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucus would provoke the infamous (and much maligned) Dean "scream"; the rest, as they say, is now history.

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Now there are some clear differences between Clinton's campaign and that of Howard Dean. Whereas his campaign was faulted for being undisciplined, inexperienced and lacking in its physical presence - having largely derived its momentum from an online audience - Clinton's has been described in glowing terms: "experienced," "accomplished," "vigilant," and, above all, "ruthless". Her campaign has been expertly run, with little room for gaffes or misstatements, and she has so far been cast as the decisive victor in all the past Democratic debates.

Also, one could credibly argue that we face a very different electoral season: Bush fatigue has never been higher, and Republican voters continue to express lukewarm support, at best, for their candidates (the only one who has seemingly escaped this trend being, of course, web phenom Ron Paul) while Democratic voters couldn't be happier with their options.

However, as the eminently readable Walter Shapiro reminded us in a recent piece on Salon, national polls are "little more than the political version of dream books that use nighttime visions to predict winning lottery numbers," and that leads "can disappear as fast as footprints in the New Hampshire snow in an era of global warming".

As has often been the case in the past, her campaign could suffer from front-runner fatigue - Iowans being notorious for punishing the perceived leading candidate - or could fall victim to some fresh controversy, scandal or combination thereof. That's not to say any of these will happen, of course; she could still manage to hold her lead until the first primary and romp off with the win.

Indeed, were I a betting man, I'd probably be inclined towards placing all my chips on Hillary; still, as she undoubtedly knows, campaign leads have a habit of rapidly changing - often in the span of a "New York minute".

Photo courtesy of sskennel via flickr