Tonight, 10 Republican presidential candidates will maul each other in the much ballyhooed Fox News debate in Cleveland, the city where, in just over 11 months, the GOP’s nominating convention will anoint the person who comes out on top after all of the year’s debates, caucuses and primaries have come and gone. As of now, predicting who that eventual Republican nominee will be is a complete guessing game.
Not so on the Democratic side. Hillary Rodham Clinton has seemed to be the prohibitive favorite since Democrats finished cleaning up the punctured balloons and empty champagne bottles left over from celebrating President Obama’s reelection. Looking down the road from that early vantage point, the only worry Democrats had was that the lack of any challenger in the primaries might leave Clinton less than battle ready in the general election campaign.
That worry is now gone, supplanted by others.
Challengers have arrived. Clinton is getting far stronger competition than expected from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is drawing big crowds in early caucus and primary states while rising in the polls at Hillary’s expense. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia’s ex-Sen. Jim Webb have also jumped into the race. So far, they have not had much of an impact, and both seem more likely to end up on a short list of possible running mates than at the top of the ticket. Still, they will probably share a few debate stages with Clinton and Sanders and could pull off a surprise or two.
Additionally, the latest inside-the-Beltway buzz is that Vice President Joe Biden is giving serious thought to a third try for the presidency. On an upcoming vacation during which Biden’s extended family will try to regroup from the recent death of his eldest son, Beau, the talk is expected to turn to whether the vice president should run to succeed Obama. Some Biden partisans have told reporters they think he should not jeopardize the sterling legacy of his long years of public service by risking a rift in the Democratic Party that could give the election to the Republicans. Many others, though, are eager to see him run, not just because they admire the man, but because he is probably the only Democrat with the gravitas to save the party from making a big mistake by choosing Hillary.
A mistake? Really? Clinton still leads all potential Republican candidates in the polls. Nevertheless, her favorability ratings have been slipping fairly dramatically in recent months. The nagging controversy surrounding her handling of emails from her time as secretary of State has taken a toll. Clinton is not generating the kind of enthusiasm Sanders currently enjoys among Democratic stalwarts. One-on-one, she comes off as charming, but when delivering a speech she is no Bill Clinton. Too often, she sounds like an earnest high school principal, not a charismatic campaigner. Hillary’s campaign is set to spend $2 million on ads in Iowa and New Hampshire that will reintroduce her to voters. Is that smart politics or a sign of trouble? Why does the most famous woman in the world need a new introduction?
The Republicans have plenty of problems of their own, of course, particularly the changing demographics of the electorate that do not favor a party whose base is aging and mostly white. For that and other reasons, Hillary Clinton remains the most likely Democratic nominee and the most likely to win the White House. Yet, she does not seem as strong as she once did and, right now, a legion of pundits and at least three rivals for the nomination are watching for a scandal to trip her up or for her campaign to suffer an internal crisis, as happened in 2008, or for Clinton fatigue to set in among too many voters. Hillary is probable, but no longer inevitable.