At last, Hillary looks stoppable

Suddenly, thankfully, it does not seem that Hillary Clinton is on an automatic trajectory to become the next Democratic nominee for president. Two recent polls suggest problems that may loom in her path.

Suddenly, thankfully, it does not seem that Hillary Clinton is on an automatic trajectory to become the next Democratic nominee for president. Two recent polls suggest problems that may loom in her path.

From New York state comes the latest John Zogby poll, forecasting a race for the Senate instead of a cakewalk. For the first time since GOP wannabe Jeanine Pirro dropped out of the race, polls indicate that New Yorkers hare having second thoughts about reelecting Hillary.

While the former first lady was leading her main opponent, John Spencer, 61-31 in Zogby’s Jan. 13 poll, her lead is down to 54-33 in his survey of March 27. Zogby reflects increases in Hillary’s negatives across the board — among Democrats, Republicans and independents. He also shows a sharp drop in moderate and conservative support for Hillary, an indication that the shrill tone of her national attacks on the Bush administration and all things Republican is destroying the carefully cultivated bipartisan image she has sold to New York.

The drop in New York is especially interesting since Spencer has yet to wage any campaign. He has not advertised or been heavily covered by the left-leaning Empire State press corps. Hillary is dropping on her own.

For his part, Spencer is likely to get enough votes at the Republican state convention to stop his primary opponent, K.T. McFarland, from getting on the ballot. While she could petition her way on, that is a very hard task in New York, where one must get signatures in more than half of the counties. In some of these places, Republicans are hard to find.

And on the national level, a revealing insight comes from the Marist Poll of Feb. 22. The survey reported that Hillary finished a far-ahead first among her rivals for the Democratic nomination, getting 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote to former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards’s 16 percent and Sen. John Kerry’s 15 percent.

But, with Al Gore figured into the race, Hillary’s vote share dropped to 33 percent, with the former vice president at 17 percent, Edwards at 16 percent and Kerry at 11 percent. A 33-17 lead over Gore sounds a lot more shaky than 40-16 over Edwards. (And remember, Gore has not even hinted at a candidacy. Once he does — if he does — his numbers are likely to increase rapidly.)

Gore turns Hillary’s left flank and would be able to use his past and present opposition to the war and hefty environmental record to attract liberals repelled by Hillary’s off-again, on-again flirtation with centrism.

Democratic animosity toward the Bush administration, approaching an all time high, means that the 2008 primaries are likely to be a kind of audition to see which candidate would do the best against the Republicans. Hillary is suspect because of the way she polarizes the voters. She doesn’t polarize Democrats — they all love her — but even the most enthusiastic of her base voters grasps that she is a red flag to independents and Republicans.

As for Gore, he has already proved that he can get more votes than the Republican. He just needs to get them in the right states this time. Gore’s popular-vote success is likely to play well when Democrats contemplate the Kerry debacle, just as Nixon’s narrow defeat in 1960 looked pretty good after the pasting Johnson gave Goldwater in 1964, good enough to give Nixon another chance.

The “electability” issue is the soft-core version of Hillary negatives, which could undermine her in 2008.

Meanwhile, Spencer can also run on a soft-core negative. Rather than have to attack Hillary frontally, he can point to her looming presidential candidacy, there for all to see with each day’s national speech, and note that he is the only candidate running for senator from New York who wants to be senator from New York.

When Hillary ran in 2000, few believed she would run for president. It was not an issue. Her gullible supporters believed that she was moving to New York so that she could become a senator, but it did not enter their minds that she only wanted to be a senator in order to become a president. Now that the second shoe is dropping, New York voters are obviously reassessing their view of Hillary’s commitment to their state. And to be asked to vote for her reelection when she obviously will move heaven and earth not to have to serve out her term, may be too much for New Yorkers to put up with.

If Spencer can get the funding his standing in the polls warrants, he could be part of a one-two punch (with Al Gore providing the knockout) to stop a second Clinton presidency.

Morris, a former political adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race.