For Hillary, heavy going in the Hawkeye State

It is time to consider whether Hillary and Bill Clinton are actually as smart as we thought they were.

The schoolyard brawl Hillary Clinton is trying to kick up in Iowa with Barack Obama, as her husband simultaneously blames the media for her fall in the polls, seems almost surreal. It follows her choice to spend two weeks on poor-me politics by playing the gender card, an error as well.

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Ever since that critical stumble on the last day of October when Clinton answered too many ways about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, the campaign has never been the same again. She strongly opposed the New York state proposal later, and even had Gov. Eliot Spitzer cancel it, but the momentum was already out of her hands. An Iowa poll shortly afterward showed voters there questioning her honesty and trustworthiness and her support waning. This week a new Iowa poll showed Obama has picked up even more support, including women who make up the foundation of Clinton’s support.

Could it be that Clinton, who has been roughed up and tested like few others in public life and has run on her ability to handle the presidency on Day One, wasn’t ready for battle? All year long she has stayed above it all, barely acknowledging her opponents, saving her criticisms for President Bush and the “Republican playbook.” Her posture was Holier Than Barack, and it worked well for her.

But lately Hillary careened off the high road, down the exit ramp and into the bowels of political pettiness. The Clinton campaign’s press release accusing Obama of stating his desire to be president in a kindergarten essay is one for the ages. Mark Penn, her pollster, went on television the following day to say it was just a joke but the damage had been done. The Clintons don’t joke.

Marc Ambinder has a fascinating piece in The Atlantic this month that reveals Team Clinton didn’t see Obama’s presidential bid coming. He reports that in 2006 they still only saw John Edwards as a potential rival, and the story shows they were right — Obama changed his mind to run this time, having always planned to look at the idea 10 years hence. This means the Clinton campaign knows Obama didn’t actually come to the Senate planning his presidential run — but that is beside the point. Ambinder found that Obama’s financial success and “rapturous” reception stunned HillaryLand and she was able to find her footing only after the first debate when her strong response to a question about a terrorist attack, and Obama’s weak one, made him look like a rookie.

Knocked off her front-runner perch in the polls, Clinton is no longer “ready to lead” in the battle for Iowa. In a state where voters reject negative campaigning, Clinton is scratching for attack lines where there are none. Obama doesn’t have negatives, but he also hasn’t had her seasoning for the presidency. Readiness and experience comprise the only line she has, and it’s the only one she needs.

Hillary Clinton has known she should win Iowa for as long as she has wanted to be president of the United States, which could date back to kindergarten. She has had a whole year, the most powerful machine in politics, and the help of former Gov. Tom Vilsack with every chit he can cash in there — isn’t that enough? Somehow it still seems impossible that Hillary Clinton would let this slip through her fingers. If Bill Clinton could keep his approval ratings high throughout the impeachment proceedings that a Republican Congress brought against him, if his wife could win a Senate seat in a state she hadn’t even lived in, how could their leverage come to an end in Iowa?

If she loses, there are no guarantees in New Hampshire and beyond. If she wins, there are.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton can still pull it out. A month is a long time in presidential politics. In fact, the CNN debate in Nevada — where Clinton was back in control and “playing the winning card,” while Obama flubbed the driver’s license question badly — was only three weeks ago. But to get back out front she needs to start flying above it again because her recent tactics are simply beneath her.