Hillary Clinton will take the debate stage in New Hampshire on Wednesday night with the other Democratic presidential candidates— Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Clinton has consolidated her lead in the polls—she’s up by 17 points nationally and has big leads in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and Florida. The new recognition that she’s pulling away may make this debate more interesting than the 384 that came before it, because the also-rans may decide they have to direct their fire on the front-runner, as trailing Democrats did when Howard Dean opened up a lead in the 2004 campaign.
Of course, attacking is risky: Rick Lazio torpedoed his 2000 Senate campaign when he attacked Clinton and came off looking like a cheap thug. Iowa voters, in particular, tend to frown on uppercut politics. And Clinton is a tougher, more skilled, and more disciplined politician than any of her opponents.
But she is not invincible. Here are some lines of attack her rivals could use to stop Clinton’s momentum, listed from mildest to strongest:
1) Start sucking up: Oh, just give in. Start angling for a Cabinet post now. If a candidate starts ladling praise on Clinton, we’ll know he wants to be secretary of something.
2) Speak softly and build your Iowa ground game: When rival campaigns call around to check the depth of their support in Iowa, where the polls are tighter than anywhere else, and New Hampshire, they find voters have made only soft decisions about their favorite candidate. In a new CNN poll of New Hampshire Democrats, a majority of primary voters say they are still trying to decide who to vote for. Only one in six says he has definitely made up his mind. So, there’s plenty of time for a comeback. Attacking too early could be costly. Dick Gephardt attacked Howard Dean about this time in 2003, and while it wounded Dean, it also helped kill Gephardt. Obama has raised a lot of money and has been pouring it into his Iowa ground team. Edwards has strong ties in Iowa that date back to his 2004 campaign. If Clinton doesn’t place first in Iowa, it will be a huge blow that will break the race open.
3) Attack Clinton on policy: There aren’t many avenues here for Clinton’s close rivals because the differences aren’t big enough to translate into significant political gains. Edwards can claim rightfully that he was the first to offer a detailed health-care plan, but he’s been saying that for a while, and there’s not much evidence that his “I was first” line has captured voters’ hearts. Obama’s advisers make a strong case for why his health-care plan’s focus on lowering costs is smarter than Clinton’s focus on compelling people to get insurance. But it’s hard to see how that argument is a momentum builder, because it’s mildly complex and puts Obama on the defensive over whether his plan is truly universal. The candidates who have articulated big policy differences with Clinton are too far back in the pack to help themselves.
4) Attack Clinton as a captive oflobbyists: Her rivals can move from being passive-aggressive to being actually aggressive. John Edwards has criticized Clinton for taking money from lobbyists, but his own senior adviser Joe Trippi made a far harsher attack recently, calling a Clinton fund-raiser a “poster child for what is wrong with Washington.” Edwards could make this argument loudly on Wednesday night rather than merely making general comments about replacing “a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats.”
5) Sharpen the complaint that Clinton is too divisive: When Barack Obama says “there was divisive, special-interest politics,” in Washington before Bush and Cheney, we know whom he’s talking about. When he pledges to “stop the bickering” in Washington and mentions the “decades of division and deadlock,” we also know whom he is talking about. But these oblique attacks haven’t produced results. Recent polls show that voters don’t think Clinton is too divisive to get elected. Obama needs to say what he means. Elizabeth Edwards has spoken about how Clinton’s divisiveness will energize Republicans. Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd also got bolder recently. Both cited Clinton’s 1993 experience mis-selling health-care reform as evidence that she’s too radioactive to get anything done. “The mismanagement of the effort in 1993 and 1994 has set back our ability to move toward universal health care immeasurably,” said Dodd.
There is a related line of attack: going after Bill Clinton’s personal life. No challenger is going to bring up Monica Lewinsky by name (though this is what their supporters talk about at fund-raisers). But a candidate might make a veiled reference to the past drama and hope voters get the hint that it’s a time-bomb issue Republicans will certainly exploit in a general election. But this is very risky. Bill Clinton is highly popular, and voters are likely to penalize the candidate who makes them think about all of that past unpleasantness. When bloggers tried to inflate a comment about family by Michelle Obama into such an attack, the campaign rushed to set the record straight.
6) Attack her honesty: Aides to rival campaigns say that in focus groups, voters who enter the room predisposed to Clinton can be convinced to turn against her when questions are raised about her honesty and trustworthiness. Public polling data are mixed on whether this would work. In a July New York Times/CBS poll of adults, those who didn’t like Clinton listed as their primary reason that she was “dishonest and not trustworthy,” but a June Fox poll found that 78 percent of Democrats found her honest and trustworthy, a marginally better result than for Obama. Convincing Democrats that she’s not to be trusted would require an opponent to affirmatively raise the issue, a highly risky strategy. Obama has pledged not to make personal attacks, and Edwards knows how such attacks can backfire, having benefited when his 2004 rivals bloodied one another.
If the candidates aren’t moved to one of these options by Clinton’s poll numbers, they may have one other reason to spark a little confrontation. The end of the fund-raising quarter is approaching, and all of the campaigns are desperate to convince reluctant donors that they’re viable. That means proving they can beat Hillary Clinton.