John Hughes

In 2012 presidential election, Clinton vs. Palin?

Given President Obama's continuing troubles, the 2012 election could feature a Republican such as Sarah Palin going up against a different Democrat – Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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When the presidential family – and Bo the dog – spent a summer weekend in Bar Harbor this July, Mainers were delighted.

Despite Maine’s unpredictable weather, the days were sun-splashed and gorgeous. President Obama looked carefree as he and his family hiked, biked, boated, and tasted fresh lobster and ice cream. (He passed on blueberry but thought the coconut flavor was terrific.)

But on the top floor of the waterfront hotel where the president stayed, newly refurbished and carpeted for the visit, with bulletproof windows installed, presidential aides could not have been cheery as they pondered the latest batch of polls and press clippings.

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In this summer of voter discontent, these sour signs heralded what has proved to be serious ongoing speculation about the president’s ability in 2012 to win a second term in office. It is a given that the out-of-power Republicans will do well, and the in-power Democrats will lose seats in the midterm elections this November.

Even White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted recently that “there’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control” of the House. For what seemed a relatively obvious statement of the facts, he suffered – rather undeservedly – one of those overnight Washington political and media hullabaloos, as anxious Democrats scolded him for “going off message.”

The trend lines support his statement. A slew of recent polls suggest declining confidence in the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress.

During the president’s weekend retreat, The Sunday New York Times declared that the drop in the president’s approval ratings to almost 40 percent, along with Mr. Gibbs’s comment, “equals trouble for the president in 2012.” It published more than a page of critiques and advice from political figures.

Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic operative, and an almost daily defender of the president on CNN, suggested he has “created a gap between what his base and swing voters expect of him and what he actually delivers.” Now, she wrote, he must “couple the intensity of his rhetoric with the wonkish policy detail of his administration.”

Former Clinton adviser Mark Penn wrote: “After the midterms, President Obama will likely face the same decision that President Clinton faced in 1994 – to stay the course on the left or return to the center. His choice could be the difference between a one-term presidency and four more years governing with the coalition that elected him.”

Should Mr. Obama stumble further, there will be growing talk in political circles about an alternative Democratic contender for the presidency in 2012.

Despite Hillary Rodham Clinton’s repeated disavowals, her name comes to the forefront. As secretary of State, she has carefully proved her loyalty to Obama. But she has built a solid reputation as an activist adviser in foreign affairs in her own right. Unfounded were fears that she would be a puppet foreign minister, overshadowed by Vice President Joe Biden and his longtime expertise in that area.

In politics Ms. Clinton was a runner-up for the Democratic nomination the last time around and maintains a formidable following with critical female voters. She has proved able to minimize the “Bill problem,” even as her husband has proved helpful in Democratic politics and international affairs.

So what of the Republican presidential candidates in 2012?

Enter Sarah Palin, who topped a recent Gallup poll with a 76 percent favorable rating for possible Republican presidential contenders. Trailing her were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – in that order.

Many political observers believe that while Ms. Palin is a significant force in Republican politics, particularly with the women she labels “Mama Grizzlies,” she is unlikely to win the presidency.

But with voters in a restless mood, and current politics in a mercurial phase, who can rule out for certain a 2012 presidential campaign pitting Clinton against Palin?

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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