Without a Fight

Hillary Clinton was supposed to know how to rumble.

In a recent Newsweek article, a Clinton adviser said that when Barack Obama makes it to the general election, Republicans will eat him like “snack food.” (Not Huckabee, presumably.) The quote deliciously captures the battle-hardened nature of a Democratic team that’s been through almost two decades of political fighting and has slight regard for the current opponent. (Clinton aides refer to Obama’s “three years out of the state senate” so often they should just call him “3-years.”)

The snack-food barb is also a sign that at the moment, Obama is taking Clinton’s lunch. Allies must make dire threats about the future because the present isn’t looking so good for their candidate. It’s not that Hillary Clinton is losing. The top three candidates are in a statistical tie in Iowa, and she leads nationally and in other states. But for a favored candidate who is supposed to be a great fighter, she isn’t winning as many hand-to-hand rounds as legend would suggest.

In some of the back-and-forth, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has looked amateurish. Clinton has seemed to delight in the prospect of going after Obama’s character, but she looks unseemly doing so. Last week, the Clinton camp attacked Obama for harboring a lifelong White House ambition: Included in the litany of evidence was his kindergarten and third-grade wish to be president. In a blog post headlined “Why is HRC Stooping So Low?” former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich—who calls Clinton a friend but whose relationship with her is texturedsaid she was leveling a “series of slurs” against Obama. Meanwhile, although the Clinton team has insisted that Obama isn’t tough enough to handle the political battles of Washington, he has gone up in the polls since he started challenging her.

How well Clinton fights matters because Clinton and her campaign aides put her combat skills at the center of her campaign. They have repeatedly argued that only she can go up against the GOP attack machine in the general election, even making the point in a television ad. It was the theme of her speech to Iowa Democrats at the influential Jefferson-Jackson dinner last month, in which she promised to “turn up the heat” on the Republicans. Clinton and her aides continue the argument into her future presidency, saying that only she has the political fighting skills to implement health-care reform and restore fiscal restraint.

Many in the Clinton camp, including the former president, blame the press for the uneven state of the competition. Clinton’s every move is scrutinized, but Obama doesn’t get the same examination despite pulling even with her in Iowa and moving within single digits in New Hampshire. This means Obama not only doesn’t have to spend time defending himself but that Hillary must do the dirty business of pointing out his shortcomings herself.

Clinton may be having trouble because, while she is practiced at combat with Republicans, she has less experience with her own party. “You need to pull your punches and calibrate,” says a Clinton aide about attacking a fellow Democrat. “You can’t do the kinds of things you would do to a Republican because you feel guilty or worry about turning people off and alienating your base.”

Clinton is also hemmed in by the rap against her that she is too divisive. Her unfavorable rating has gone up in the latest Gallup poll. Obama quickly pointed this out in an interview with the Des Moines Register, as further proof that she would lose the general election. If things were going better for Clinton, she could point out that it was this kind of stereotype about her that Obama used as an example in his book The Audacity of Hopeto show how Republicans exploit unfair “narratives” about Democrats. As it is, her team has been able to make the charge stick that while he may write and speak about a new kind of politics, he doesn’t always practice it.

In the end, the election calendar could help Clinton overcome her middling performance as a pugilist. Candidates usually stop squabbling as Election Day nears, focusing their remarks on convincing voters that they can deliver health benefits and keep them safe. Since the Iowa caucus comes so soon after Christmas, the cooling-off period may start earlier, as candidates begin their final appeals before voters tune out to do their shopping. That will focus the debate back on policy, which voters say they prefer, and allow Clinton to return to the case she’s had better luck selling—that she has the experience to deliver what voters want on issues like the economy, which was the topic of her speech Wednesday. She just has to hope that by the time she gets to the final stage of the campaign, Obama hasn’t taken too big a bite out of her.