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« How much of the momentum is pro-Barack? | Main | John Edwards' oratory sounds less and less like that of a Presidential candidate »

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Greg Thoron

Barack or Hillary?
January 11, 2008; Page A10

Experience or change? That's the question, and no longer just for voters. It's the riddle of the day for Republican Party leaders, who have no say in the matter but can't help thinking about which Democrat they'd prefer to face in a general election.

New Hampshire didn't clarify much, but it did turn this into a two-man Democratic race. John Edwards will stage a last hurrah in South Carolina, but he'd need a populist miracle to reverse the Hillary-Barack narrative. Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and now Bill Richardson -- all gone. The story is now Mrs. Tear versus Mr. Cheer. It'll be a dirty street fight up until the big primary day of Feb. 5, and perhaps beyond.

That's less than a month off, and it has the GOP wondering where it should be placing its own bets. What's most surprising is how unified and optimistic many Republicans are that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are beatable. With the Iraq war looking better, and the debate pivoting toward the economy, there's a new feeling of confidence. The argument has turned to which Democrat is the tougher opponent. The outlines of that debate go something like this:

- The Clinton upside: Republicans have experience with this dynasty. They know what kind of campaign she'll run, what advice she'll receive, what sort of tactics she'll employ. Her long years under the national klieg lights have given the GOP an intricate sense of her weaknesses. At the top of the list is that "that not even Democratic voters trust her," says one Republican National Committee official. They'll pound on this theme, pointing out discrepancies in Ms. Clinton war positions, in her promises to keep the nation safe while voting against terrorist surveillance, in her vows to protect the economy while plotting massive new spending and tax hikes.

What makes them most confident is that Mrs. Clinton starts a general election with national disapproval ratings in the mid-to-high 40s. That's huge: John Kerry's was 45% in the days leading up the election; Al Gore's about 42%. Ms. Clinton's problem, too, is that she has little ability to push down those figures; they stem from a public that already knows her, and is unlikely to change its mind. Republicans meanwhile believe that with just a little negative advertising (say, oh, $100 million or so), they could push the numbers even higher.

- The Clinton downside: Republicans have experience with this dynasty. They know what kind of campaign she'll run, what advice she'll receive, what sort of tactics she'll employ. The Clinton machine earned its reputation, and it will utilize every union, 527, green group and devotee to raise a financial war chest that they will use to then scrape, claw and grind toward a victory.

Mrs. Clinton is ambitious and clever; if there's a way of winning this race, she'll find it. She also won't be bound by any "hopeful" pledges of bipartisanship, but will skillfully exploit whatever ugliness comes out of the current Republican brawl.

- The Obama downside: He's an unknown, a change, a mental shift, for Republicans who'd been gearing up for Mrs. Clinton. He's skillfully tapped into a bitterness with the status quo, and his optimistic message of hope is tough to counter (just ask the tearful Mrs. Clinton). Is Obama-mania at its start, or its peak? The great fear of Republicans is that it's the former.

Mrs. Clinton has a ceiling on her support. No matter how great a race she runs, any victory will be unlikely to result in significant Washington realignment. But Mr. Obama? If he really has tapped into something deep in the American soul, and if he can keep tapping until November, it's conceivable he could bring with him a new wash of Democratic seats that could reshape the Washington political landscape for years to come. That's a big gamble.

- The Obama upside: Mr. Obama is flying high right now, but he owes some of that altitude to what has been a remarkably polite Democratic race (he has yet to face a negative ad), and a charmed press corps. Don't expect Mrs. Clinton to continue placing party unity above her own shot at the White House. Just yesterday, the press teed up some unflattering Obama stories, one about a curious real-estate deal he'd done with a man now facing federal corruption charges; another about highly controversial abortion votes in the Illinois senate. Even if the Clinton campaign wasn't the inspiration for these pieces, you can trust it'll run with them.

The hope among Republicans rooting for Mr. Obama is that there's more to come, only after the nomination and after his party is stuck with him. They're confident they can get traction out of a liberal Illinois and Washington voting record. And he's a rookie who has already committed some foreign-policy flubs; any future ones, under the intense general-election media glare, could prove campaign-wreckers.

"I can see it take hold, that he's the most liberal Democrat nominated by the party in years and years, and despite his obvious intelligence isn't ready to be president in a time of war. I can see that getting traction in a Republican and independent electorate and keeping him below 45%" says Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist. "On the other hand, three-quarters of the people in this country are dissatisfied. And I can see him with his eloquence, and his ability to use the language and frame an argument, so inspiring people that they say, 'let's give this guy a shot'."

How it does play out will obviously depend on the Republican nominee. Mrs. Clinton is a unifier -- at least of Republicans -- and her nomination would arguably be better for a John McCain or a Rudy Giuliani. Both have their problems with the Republican base, but voters might be willing to overlook these if it meant keeping Mrs. Clinton out of the White House. On the flip side, a Clinton matchup with Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee could be to her favor, allowing her to more ably contrast her Senate and White House national security experience with their scantier foreign-policy résumés.

Mr. Obama is surely hoping to draw a Republican opponent with as little foreign-policy experience as he has. The challenge for a GOP candidate in tackling the fuzzy Obama juggernaut will be to draw big contrasts, say on foreign policy (McCain, Giuliani) or the ability to manage a fragile economy (Romney). And can you imagine the gaseous war of eloquent words that would be an Obama-Huckabee race? We really would need a climate-action program.

Whatever the combination, hold on tight.

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