To hear Mark Penn tell it, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is doing so well in her presidential campaign that up to 24 percent of Republican women may defect to the Democratic ticket next year.
The New York senator's top campaign strategist attributes that bombshell of a possibility, which he gets from his internal campaign polling, to the "emotional element" of potentially having the first woman presidential nominee in American history.
"That actually will be a major unexpected factor here that will throw the Republicans for a loop," Mr. Penn told reporters at a Monitor breakfast Thursday.
But, Penn stressed at the outset, there's nothing inevitable about a Clinton nomination, insisting that the campaign is taking nothing for granted. So even as he touts a stream of statistics that portray the most glowing of prospects for the former first lady, he asserts that "the race is certainly not over" and that her team is not getting complacent.
"I really feel in the campaign there's absolutely no sense of that," he says, adding that "that the campaign is working hard every day."
In national polls of Democratic primary voters, Senator Clinton now typically comes in ahead of her top opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, by 20 to 30 percentage points or more. She's winning in nearly every demographic, Penn says, noting that she has a strong base of support among women.
In the earliest primary states – New Hampshire and South Carolina – Clinton also has comfortable leads over Senator Obama, deep into double digits. But then there's Iowa, which holds caucuses that could come before any of the Democratic primaries, and polls show a tight contest among Clinton, Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. And even if Clinton is no Howard Dean – the maverick former governor of Vermont who looked set to win the Iowa caucuses in 2004, only to come in third and drop out of the race within weeks – no one will forget the pivotal role Iowa played four years ago in scrambling the Democratic field.
Penn says Clinton came into the 2008 Iowa race with a disadvantage: Before she announced her candidacy, she had to avoid appearing there, lest she look too transparently political. Meanwhile, Senator Edwards had in effect been campaigning there for years and built up an extensive organization. And Obama, with his ability to draw big crowds, also grabbed his share of hearts there early.
Now, Penn says, Iowans are getting to know her, and she is competitive. Polling in Iowa on the caucuses is difficult, as they are a low-turnout affair. And in each caucus, if a candidate does not reach a 15 percent threshold of votes, a caucus goer must find another candidate who does. So not only is the first choice important, so is the second. And, says Penn, "I think the people of Iowa are a long way from making their final decisions."
Iowa, in short, could once again derail the national front-runner's juggernaut.
But Clinton is still fighting the inevitability label. And her opponents are using it for their own purposes. The Obama campaign sent out an e-mail to supporters Thursday with a one-word subject line: "Inevitable?" It was an appeal for cash, aimed at provoking Obama supporters over the idea that somehow Clinton has the nomination locked up. The night before, appearing on "The Tonight Show," Obama took a dig at Clinton: "Hillary is not the first politician in Washington to declare 'mission accomplished' a little too soon."
For the Republicans, building up Clinton as the likely nominee may also be good for fundraising. Many Republicans have a visceral dislike for her, and even if the GOP is having a hard time coalescing around one of their own in the nomination race, there's little doubt that running against Clinton in the general election will give Republicans an extra jolt. Head-to-head matchups between Clinton and the top Republicans show a tight race, with Clinton currently slightly ahead.
Clinton herself has betrayed a sense that she believes she'll be the nominee, by taking key stands aimed more at a general election audience than the primaries. Most recently, she voted in favor of declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, the only Democratic candidate to do so – and a move that seemed to echo her 2002 vote authorizing war with Iraq.
Even as she insists she's taking nothing for granted, there are other signs that work in Clinton's favor. She is famously disciplined and so cannot be counted on to make a major mistake between now and the first vote. And Obama has put himself in a bind by establishing his brand as "a new kind of politics." So every time he goes negative, Clinton takes the high ground and wins.
"It's likely she'll be the nominee, but strange things can happen in Iowa," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.