Underestimated factor

Now that the two parties have bid farewell to most of their presidential contenders and between them are now down to four — sorry, Congressman Paul — perhaps they will consider last rites for their faith in the role of money, endorsements, polls, pollsters and formidable political machines. There was a far more potent influence in this election, one that helped propel candidates to victory and allowed some to trick defeat, often long enough even to escape it.

It wasn’t money; the candidates who raised the most lost many of the early contests, and Mitt Romney was unable to stop either of his under-funded rivals in the GOP. It wasn’t a commanding lead in the polls, either; consider New Hampshire and California. And it wasn’t the best pollster; Hillary Clinton has one of them, and has paid him $4.3 million, though she has run out of money. John McCain hasn’t had a pollster since June.

It wasn’t endorsements. Consider Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D) influence in Massachusetts. It wasn’t the best political machine, either — McCain’s first formidable, flush, establishment-built campaign died a spectacular death last summer while his subsequent shoe-leather campaign prevailed. Now Clinton’s vaunted and unrivaled operation is struggling for survival.

In this first election without an incumbent since Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t al Qaeda or the Iraq war or even that war we thought we were starting with Iran. It was personality, what the dictionary defines as: “The visible aspect of one’s character, as it impresses others.” This changed the story again and again.

For Barack Obama, there was little chance of taking on the powerful Clinton machine, let alone the fantasy of upending it, without his remarkable blend of cool and charisma, confidence and hope. Before the voters were involved, a team of Democrats had to believe in him and be willing to buck the tide. It was Obama himself, and never his policies, that moved them to take such a risk.

 The inimitable insurgency of Mike Huckabee, with few dollars and many obstacles, was born of the charm, warmth and humor of the underdog, who spent much of 2007 below 10 percent in the polls. Lacking in foreign policy experience and branded a tax-and-spend liberal by economic conservatives, the delightful Huckabee has smiled his way past the cynics and the odds and unnerved the party with his surprise victories, nearly nabbing Virginia from McCain this week.

 McCain’s Phoenix-like rise from the political pyre is the most astounding tale of the 2008 race thus far and is attributable only to the senator’s trademark blend of grit and humility. McCain was resolved to win the race, but resigned to the odds that he could not. He fought doggedly for victory but fought even harder for redemption. He was willing to be broke, tired, rejected, even laughed at — but losing would come only on his terms.

 Then there is Hillary Clinton, a political force who wields her husband’s larger-than-life personality as a key asset, yet assiduously guards her own. She is known to charm everyone she meets in small settings, but voters see a different person. There is even a pro-emote vs. anti-emote rift inside her team, a bizarre tension since it is only up to candidates to reveal or hide themselves. Clinton herself chalks it up to being a Methodist, which may largely be true. She is no Obama, Bill Clinton or even McCain, but she need not be. As long as it is real, voters are satisfied. A little more of Hillary is probably what she needs the most.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.