Barack Obama is improving rapidly as a presidential candidate. His showing at the Service Employees International Union's spring health-care forum was so bad, an Obama adviser labeled it a "searing experience." But he was dazzling at an SEIU forum on Monday, putting to rest any concern that Obama is too cool and abstract to talk to regular folks. His Tuesday speech unveiling a middle-class tax-cut proposal demonstrated that Obama has moved past the uplifting, but vague, rhetoric of his early campaign and toward concrete policy ideas.
This is good news for Obama and his fans, but is it enough good news? While he's been improving, Hillary Clinton has been improving faster. He was once the Democratic Party phenomenon, but she's the one with the momentum in the polls. She now leads the national polls by 20 points. In the crucial states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, she's way ahead, too. Obama, by contrast, is doing no better in national polls than he was in February, despite vast and largely approving press coverage. He has fallen sharply in New Hampshire and South Carolina since late summer. And the betting money is moving to Clinton, too: She is crushing Obama by 68 to 16 in the political futures markets. The only decent news for Obama comes from Iowa, where he is third in the polls, but very close to Clinton and John Edwards.
Is it time for Obama to panic?
Each day Clinton stays as the strong front-runner locks in her status a little more. Republican candidates are certainly treating her like their chief opponent, launching an intramural contest to show who can attack her more quickly and loudly. Giuliani tried to provoke a fight with her over Moveon.org's anti-Petraeus ad, and Mitt Romney held a special press conference to attack her health-care plan. This only helps Clinton's standing among Democrats.
How can Obama recover? Here's a look at what he could try and the limitations of each strategy.
Go after Clinton. It's been seven months since the first Obama/Clinton dust-up over David Geffen's negative remarks about Hillary. That spat didn't hurt Clinton at all. Two months ago, the two got into a name-calling match over who was more naive about foreign policy. Clinton came out of that fight stronger in the polls, too. Obama has been trying to paint her as a captive of lobbyists and unable to change Washington, but that attack hasn't worked, either. In June voters thought Clinton was the candidate who represented change in Washington, and they still do.
Perhaps the problem has been that Obama's attacks have been too veiled. Speaking about the Iraq war last week, he said, "Perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask the hard questions—too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves." He was talking about Clinton, but not every voter would have picked up on that. Should he start making the attacks more explicit—perhaps arguing that the partisan GOP response to her policies is exactly what her presidency would bring? (Or should he at least keep sending his wife on the offensive?)
The big downside is that if Obama goes after Clinton, he hurts his brand. He's campaigned against gutter-style politics. Clinton's big weakness in the polls is that people don't trust her. But if he went after her for that, it would get personal and ugly fast. Iowa voters in particular tend to look down on this kind of behavior.
Let John Edwards tear down Clinton. Edwards is the Democratic candidate who looks the most like an insurgent. His strategy may seem frantic at times (no SUVs one day, no congressional health care the next), but at least he looks passionate.
On the same day Obama was giving his low-key tax speech, John Edwards' senior adviser Joe Trippi was going after Hillary Clinton with a meat hook over a fund-raiser she was holding. "That no one in the Clinton campaign—including the candidate—found anything wrong with holding this fundraiser is an indication of just how bad things have gotten in Washington—because there isn't an American outside of Washington who would not be sickened by it," he wrote.
Perhaps Obama can benefit from whatever paint Edwards can strip from Clinton, as Edwards benefited in 2004 from the fight between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. But so far, Edwards' attacks haven't worked against Clinton, and there's also no guarantee that the votes would go to Obama even if Edwards were effective.
Hillary will fall of her own weight. The story of fugitive fund-raiser Norman Hsu should keep any Hillary challenger happy. Having to return $850,000 in money he raised hasn't hurt Clinton much yet, but the scandal gives hope to her rivals that there are other controversies to come. As much as Clinton benefits from being the front-runner, she also has to bear all the scrutiny. Her subtle shifts make the nightly news, and her gaffes will, too. The Goliath falls story is irresistible: All it needs is a few inconvenient facts.
But she hasn't fallen yet. Despite mountains of dire predictions and lots of scrutiny, she's only gotten stronger. She was supposed to be cold and unappealing, but a recent Pew poll found Democratic voters had a more positive view of her than they have of any Democrat, and than Republican voters have of any Republican candidate. She's tough, and she's run a disciplined campaign. "She's only going to fall if someone makes it happen," says unaffiliated Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It's going to require a big whack."
Don't panic. There's time. Voters are more reasonable than pundits. Voters, particularly in Iowa and the early primary states, make their decisions late. As Mellman points out, more than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn't decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. In 2004, 54 percent of New Hampshire Democrats decided within a week of the primary. John Kerry was lagging in third place until only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Gary Hart came out of nowhere to win New Hampshire in 1984. So did John McCain in 2000. But rising campaigns usually benefit from some fantastic moment. In the Republican race, Mike Huckabee still appears to have a possible breakout moment ahead of him. But Obama has already had his fantastic moment. Can he have a second? Absent a stumble by Clinton, it's hard to imagine an event Obama could create or policy he could put forward that would break open the race.
Raise a lot of money. If Obama has another great fund-raising quarter, it will give his campaign a boost, as his previous ones have. It will allow his allies to say that the real people are clamoring for him regardless of what the polls and pundits say, and it will give him the cash to sell his message on-air and continue building an organization in Iowa, the state where it matters and where he's doing the best. If he wins there, that may be the only boost he needs.