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Edwards, Not Hillary, is Dems' Best Chance

By Steven Stark

According to the latest conventional wisdom, Hillary Clinton is threatening to turn the Democratic presidential-nomination race into a rout. Key to her current appeal is the assumption that she's the party's most electable candidate. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 54 percent of Democrats described her as their best hope in 2008. (The other candidates lagged behind.)

There's only one problem with this faith in Clinton's electability: it's wrong. On paper, John Edwards is the party's best chance for a victory, even though his latest fundraising difficulties have made it increasingly unlikely that he will ever be the nominee.

Sure, Clinton often runs ahead of the Democratic pack in polls that track the candidates' strengths against possible GOP opponents. But that's because she has already assumed the role of a nominee, and the others have not. If Edwards or Barack Obama won the nomination, that air of certainty would transfer to either of them.

In truth, Democrats who are supporting Clinton because of her electability probably haven't been reading the latest polls carefully. In current match-ups with Republicans, Clinton isn't looking particularly strong, despite the GOP now being weaker and more divided than it is likely to be a year from now. There are also early warning signs that Clinton's presence at the top of the ticket could be a disaster for her party's congressional candidates in many closely contested races.

Mapping it out

The electoral college is currently more equally divided between the two major parties than it has been at most times in history - hence the now-cliché Red- and Blue-State analysis. Democrats and Republicans each enter 2008 with about 200 of 538 available electoral votes, 270 of which are needed to win. The key, then, for the Dems, is to get the other 70 either by winning the toss-up states or, better yet, also winning some states Republicans are taking for granted because they're in the GOP base of the South and mountain West.

Clinton's problem is that, according to some polls, Rudy Giuliani is currently running even or only slightly behind her in New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - up-for-grabs states Clinton has to sweep in order to win. Given his current showing, it's likely Giuliani will win some of those contests in November 2008 and deny Clinton a majority.

Even Fred Thompson, a regional candidate if ever there was one, isn't doing that poorly against Clinton. In the latest Rasmussen poll, he's trailing Clinton by only five points nationally. What's the disconnect here? Everyone knows about Clinton's high negatives in the polls, even if, for now, Democrats seem to be ignoring them. And it is still possible to win an election even if 40 percent or more of the electorate can't stand you. But it isn't easy.

Worse for Clinton still, some early polls suggest that she isn't as strong in the populous suburbs as one would expect. In a recent Survey USA Missouri poll, she ran even with Giuliani in the St. Louis metro area. One can safely assume she carried the city handily, so the disappointing results suggest weakness in the 'burbs that could spell trouble with a Capital T in swing states.

Could Obama do better? He clearly doesn't have Clinton's high negatives - a good sign - but he doesn't exactly have a wealth of experience, either. And in an age of terrorism, that could count in November. True, voters in 1960, during the height of the Cold War, were willing to entrust the presidency to a young JFK. But he had been on the national scene much longer than Obama, and Kennedy hardly won by a landslide in a country that, at the time, was more strongly Democratic.

Moreover, Obama's appeal in the Red States, while stronger than Clinton's, probably wouldn't be decisive. Obama could get to 270 votes, but, like Clinton, would have to use a "max out" Blue State strategy to do so. Still, he's a far less divisive figure, so his general election chances would be better than Clinton's.

By contrast, if Edwards could emerge from his present difficulties and win the nomination, he would likely mirror Giuliani's election strategy. Edwards would try to hold the Democratic base, win some of the swing states, and pick off a few Southern border states - such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee - that traditionally go Republican. It's worth noting that the only Democrats to win the presidency since 1964, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were - like Edwards - both Southerners who ran similar electoral college campaigns.

The goal for Edwards, then, is to persuade enough Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire to vote with their heads and not their hearts when the nomination process begins in January. This is precisely what happened in 2004, when there was a late surge in Iowa away from Howard Dean to Edwards and John Kerry, based on the theory that those two eventual nominees represented the party's best chance for success. If anything, the desire to win is even stronger this year. It's a long shot, but Edwards must press the electability argument. Right now, it may be all he has left.

Boston Phoenix

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