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One Gaffe Won't Derail Clinton Campaign

By Peter Brown

There is much hope among Democratic presidential candidates and their supporters, fueled by a news media desperately wanting a real fight for the nomination, that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent debate performance was so poor it might create a race from what so far has been a runaway.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich now puts her chances of winning the Democratic nomination at 50 percent, down from 80 percent. Newt's a smart guy, but these days he has a habit of saying whatever is needed to get on television.

He should know better. The evidence is scant, to say the least, that Sen. Clinton did the type of damage that could fundamentally change the dynamics of what has been, until now, a lopsided campaign.

After all, there is a huge difference between having a bad outing -- which she had -- and throwing away decades of goodwill built up among the Democratic rank-and-file, the vast majority of whom didn't even watch the debate.

It would take a collapse unprecedented in modern American politics for her to lose the nomination. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken mostly after the gaffe gave her a 23-point lead over the Democratic field.

The notion put forward by some that her lead is no larger or more solid -- and therefore just as easily squandered -- as was Howard Dean's four years ago is just plain wrong.

Dean, who surged to the forefront of the Democratic race in 2003 only to see it all disappear when the voting began, rode a wave of anti-war fervor among Democratic activists who knew little about him. That's why they deserted him so quickly once they saw his less flattering side.

And he wasn't nearly as far ahead of the field as Sen. Clinton is. A December 2003 Pew poll of Democrats had him and former Gen. Wesley Clark tied nationally with 15 percent of the vote. A Gallup Poll that December gave Dean an eight-point lead over Clark. Sen. Clinton is more than 20 points ahead in most states -- Iowa being the major exception -- and pushing close to 50 percent of the vote.

For Clinton to lose the nomination, millions of Democratic activists, who have worshipped her for the last 16 years, will have to suddenly reevaluate their view.

Of course it's possible, but more likely than not it is a sucker's bet.

It is important to understand that not only are all the polls showing her far ahead, but these same surveys show her supporters more firmly committed than those of the other candidates.

That's due in no small amount to her being the wife of the most popular Democratic president in most Americans' lifetime. Today Bill Clinton still ranks as the nation's most popular Democrat.

It is no exaggeration to say most Democratic primary voters see Bill Clinton as their political god and Hillary Clinton's candidacy, by extension, as a way to bring happy days here again.

That's why her lead is not only a mile wide, but just as deep.

Now, what her admittedly lousy debate performance has done is prompt her primary opponents to begin the kind of attacks that Sen. Clinton will see from the Republicans if she is nominated.

The Republican National Committee couldn't be happier with Democrats raising questions about her candor, truthfulness and positions on the issues. That just makes its eventual job easier.

Take former Sen. John Edwards' effective commercial in which he uses film clips to show Sen. Clinton seemingly taking different sides of the same issue. It is the kind of tough attack she can expect the rest of the way. There are many Americans among whom such ads will strike a chord.

That's because there are tens of millions of Americans who strongly dislike Sen. Clinton and will certainly find such commercials and attacks convincing.

But the problem for Edwards and the rest of the Democratic field is that very few of these anti-Hillary folks are Democrats who can vote in party primaries. Yes, in some states, non-party members can vote in Democratic primaries, but there are hardly enough to make a difference.

The vast majority of them are Republicans and independents who are scared silly she could become president. And that's why the debate gaffes could have an impact on her chances of becoming president, but more so when it comes to the general election than in the race for the nomination.

Of course, we still have roughly two months before the primaries begin, and in politics anything is possible. But it will probably take a lot more than a lousy debate performance to blow Hillary Clinton's formidable lead for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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