Can Clinton Be Stopped?

The Hillary Clinton who appeared on five Sunday morning shows was a formidable political candidate: poised, polished, knowledgeable. The package she presented was designed to send a message to her Democratic rivals: catch me if you can.

She now sits atop the Democratic field, in a tier by herself. She has achieved that by performing at a consistently high level in debates and on the campaign trail, along with help from a campaign that has been largely free of major mistakes. She showed Sunday she could stand in against some of the best pitching in political journalism.

Clinton's goal has been to surround her candidacy with an aura of inevitability, which is certainly common among front-runners. The more she can do that, the more she puts the focus on whether her rivals have a strategy to stop her. The more she does that, the less focus there will be on questions pertinent to what kind of general election candidate or president she actually might be.

The rush to anoint Clinton as an inevitable nominee overlooks the history of nomination battles, which is that few candidate win these contests without a struggle or without at least one serious setback or stumble -- either self-inflicted or inflicted by the voters. What happens before the voters are heard from is not unimportant, but it is rarely decisive.

What could trip up Clinton? Many things: a scandal, a mistake or an unexpected event -- although mistakes seem the least likely given what has transpired to date. The most likely is a defeat and that certainly appears most possible in Iowa. A Clinton loss in Iowa would instantly change perceptions of the Democratic race and bring new scrutiny to Clinton's candidacy that may be overlooked right now.

Iowa is the outlier in the polls at this point in the campaign. Clinton holds a sizeable lead in national polls, and she has, on average, double-digit leads in the other early states. But in Iowa, the polls show a three-way contest that also includes Barack Obama and John Edwards -- and what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire will affect all the other states.

Iowa's electorate is notoriously picky about its choices. The voters there demand considerable attention and, even when they get it from the candidates, wait until the last minute to make up their minds. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin believes more than half the likely Democratic caucus voters have not settled on a candidate. Advisers to the leading candidates say the percentage may be even higher than that. No matter what the polls show elsewhere, Iowa is a real battleground.

An Obama victory in Iowa would deal a serious -- though not fatal -- setback to Clinton. Although Clinton has a lead in New Hampshire today, Obama has a potentially receptive electorate in New Hampshire because of the sizeable number of independents who are likely to vote in the Democratic primary. If Obama were to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton then would be in deep trouble.

An Edwards victory over Clinton in Iowa would present a potential obstacle to her nomination, but perhaps not one as significant as if Obama were to win Iowa. That's because Edwards did not do well in New Hampshire in 2004 and has struggled there this year. Knowing that, he and Elizabeth Edwards have been investing more time and resources in New Hampshire, but no one can say with any confidence whether it could pay off if he wins Iowa.

Clinton is acting as if her whole campaign depends on Iowa -- and it may. She has rebuilt her ground operation there. She has used Iowa as the venue for major speeches on Iraq and health care to position herself favorably for the Democratic electorate. Twice now she has brought in her husband to campaign across the state with her. She and her advisers believe a victory there could secure her nomination. They also know that a loss there would scramble what has so far been generally smooth march forward.

What happens next depends in part on her opponents. She and the other Democrats will assemble in New Hampshire for a two-hour debate on Wednesday night, moderated by NBC's Tim Russert. That event likely will reveal how they intend to try to stop her.

Obama may be forced onto the attack, if only to shake up a race that has been largely unchanged for months. Or he may try to avoid direct confrontation awhile longer, hoping that Edwards assumes that role immediately. Last week's debate in Iowa also found Joe Biden and Chris Dodd willing to challenge Clinton on the key question of whether she is the strongest Democratic standard-bearer in the general election and the kind of politician who could accomplish big things as president.

At some point, the voters will face up to those questions more directly than that have. Whether that will be during the primaries or, if Clinton is the nominee, after she has effectively wrapped up the nomination, depends in part on what the New York senator's opponents decide. But after the week she just wrapped up -- her most dominating week of the campaign to day -- her rivals must be ever more aware of the consequences of not doing so.

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