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Air of inevitability is escaping Clinton

Times Staff Writer

She was a disciplined candidate atop a polished campaign, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is now mired in the most serious crisis of her 11-month bid for the White House, as a rolling series of missteps threatens to topple her as the Democratic front-runner.

The large crowds that once came to see her have thinned. Trusted campaign surrogates have veered wildly off message. And a campaign operation that had built seemingly impregnable leads over the summer appears to be faltering, prompting former President Clinton to amp up his role as a public spokesman and campaign advisor.

Clinton’s chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has wiped out her lead in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to some polls. Should she lose those contests, gone would be the notion that she is the party’s inevitable nominee -- one basis of her appeal as a candidate.

Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska plans to publicly endorse Clinton next week. But, he says, the momentum may belong to Obama. Kerrey spoke about the “phenomenal pride” black voters felt when Obama made joint appearances last weekend with media titan Oprah Winfrey.

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Obama, Kerrey said in an interview, has “either peaked, or he is on a trend line that is going to make him the nominee of the party.”

In Hillaryland, as her team calls itself, the message is that there is no cause for worry.

“Politics now is a 24/7 cycle. You go up, you go down,” Clinton told reporters in Iowa on Friday. “I think that’s all part of a vigorous, dynamic election cycle.”

Her campaign began airing a 30-second television spot Friday in Iowa and New Hampshire that showcases Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, and her 88-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham, an effort to strengthen her connection to female voters. A Des Moines Register poll published this month showed that Obama was doing better than Clinton among women likely to vote in the Jan. 3 caucuses.

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Also Friday, Clinton’s husband sent out a fundraising letter that sought to debunk perceptions that the New York senator would not be a catalyst for real change if she were to win the White House.

More and more, her message is being overwhelmed by unforeseen events.

On Thursday morning, she had to apologize to Obama on the tarmac of Reagan National Airport as they were leaving for a Democratic debate. At issue were the remarks of a New Hampshire campaign advisor, Bill Shaheen, who made public his concerns about Obama’s drug use in his youth. Shaheen quit the Clinton campaign later in the day.

The episode followed two instances of volunteer aides to the Clinton campaign forwarding e-mails that falsely claimed Obama was a Muslim, possibly intent on destroying the United States. Both of the aides resigned.

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Just as confounding to some was Clinton’s own attack on Obama’s character. As recently as last month, she had said at a dinner for Democratic activists in Des Moines that she was “not interested in attacking” her opponents.

On Dec. 2, she stood before reporters in Cedar Rapids and did just that. She accused Obama of hypocrisy by preaching ethics and then “skirting” campaign finance rules in the way he doles out funds.

Her campaign released a statement the same day that was instantly mocked. Eager to rebut Obama’s assertion that the presidency had not been a consuming ambition in his life, the Clinton campaign cited, among other things, an essay he had written in kindergarten titled, “I Want to Become President.”

The ploy boomeranged. Embarrassed by pointing to an opponent’s childhood writing, the Clinton campaign said it had been joking. But the news release was still on her website, with nothing to indicate that the reference was not serious.

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For much of the campaign, Clinton delivered a positive message that seemed to be resonating. Trouble began with her subpar performance at an Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia, when she waffled on several questions -- among them whether she favored driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Her rivals, sensing an opening, became more aggressive.

Clinton soon came to believe she needed to strike back, but she has struggled to find the right tone.

Not only has Obama weathered the attacks, he is using them to raise money. In a solicitation letter Thursday, his campaign manager asked for $25 donations, writing: “The only way to stop these kinds of tired, desperate attacks is to demonstrate very clearly that they have a real cost to Sen. Clinton’s campaign.”

Robert B. Reich, a Cabinet member in President Clinton’s administration who has not endorsed a candidate, said it was a mistake for her to swipe at rivals: “It’s a very risky strategy for her. I wish it weren’t the case that in addition to everything else, women candidates -- like women in society generally -- are judged more harshly than men when they go on the attack. And I think she has to deal with that burden, as well as the burden of her own history with regard to being characterized as a polarizing figure.”

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With the race tightening, former President Clinton reentered the picture last week, determined to address an issue that seems to have dogged his wife from the beginning.

Surveys confirm that voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a call for change that plays to Obama’s strength. Hillary Clinton rates higher in polls when it comes to experience, but polling has shown that more voters in Iowa would prefer a candidate who can set the country on a new path.

President Clinton’s mission in a series of campaign stops Monday in Iowa was nothing short of redefining his wife in the minds of voters. Seven times in the course of a speech at Iowa State University, he called her a “change agent.”

Popular as he is among Democrats, the former president has created a separate problem. On the campaign trail, he likes talking about himself. The Iowa State stop was no exception. He touted his wife, but also gushed about his plans to help create “thousands of new jobs” in New York City by retrofitting public housing.

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Last month, he said on a campaign stop in Iowa that he was against the unpopular Iraq war from the beginning. That touched off a public debate about whether the statement was true, a needless distraction for his wife’s campaign.

He is a magnet for crowds, though -- something the campaign can use.

At a Des Moines high school visit Dec. 7, as Obama was preparing for his high-profile appearance with Winfrey, Sen. Clinton introduced an important woman in her own life: her mother.

But the crowd was thin. Before the event began, aides were seen removing metal folding chairs from the school cafeteria so that the cameras would not pan a row of empty seats.

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A group of young people stood on an elevated ramp near the stage, holding up Clinton signs and helping create good TV images for the campaign. But many were not from Iowa. They were part of a high school group that had come from Chicago to see the candidates.

Dallas Wright, an 18-year-old senior, said after the Clinton event that he was inclined to vote for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Of Clinton, he said: “I think if she were to win the nomination, she’d have my vote.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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