Beating Hillary Clinton May Take Act of God -- or Oprah

Endorsements from unions, Winfrey or Gore could give Democratic rivals a fighting chance.
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The presidential primary season has raged for months. The Democratic race started with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) in the lead with challengers Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and John Edwards jockeying for position.

At summer's end, Clinton is several lengths ahead of her Democratic peers, Obama seems stuck in second place, and Edwards has fallen toward the back. Races rarely run to form, however. Three influences could alter the Democrats' course in the fall: endorsements from unions, Al Gore and Oprah Winfrey.

Edwards had hoped to gain momentum from a populist message. He has championed helping the poor and has spoken out strongly on issues affecting working people. It appears his strategy is to build early momentum in Iowa and secure the endorsement of labor unions.

The strategy has yet to boost Edwards' position. The AFL-CIO voted not to endorse any candidate, leaving member unions to make individual choices. The first big labor endorsement went to

Clinton -- the United Transportation Union -- and the second went to

Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) -- the International Association of Fire Fighters.

So far, two unions are

backing Edwards: United Steelworkers and United Mineworkers of America. He needs more backing than that; he needs to score a union such as the Service Employees Internal Union, which represents more than a million service workers -- mostly in health care -- and has a track record of bringing in votes for a candidate.

Obama remains the candidate best positioned to upset Clinton. His impressive fund-raising record keeps him within reaching distance. In fact, Obama has a huge fund-raiser planned for this weekend with Oprah Winfrey at her home outside Santa Barbara, Calif. The invitees are exclusive Hollywood types, and only a select few will be allowed to hang out with Winfrey at the event.

The fund-raiser is expected to raise about $3 million for Obama's campaign, but the money isn't as critical as Winfrey's support. She has an incredible media brand that's accessible through the Internet and television, and she has millions of loyal viewers in an important demographic -- women in their 20s to 50s -- a demographic that's crucial for Clinton. Her support could propel Obama. George W. Bush got the Oprah boost in 2000 to after appearing on her show -- a bounce of about 12 points in national polls.

Another big factor to consider is former Vice President Al Gore. Gore didn't disappear after losing the 2000 election. He has gone on to become a respected voice on many issues, chief among them the environment. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Price, which will be announced on Oct. 12. Winning it would obviously enhance his image tremendously.

Gore has made it clear that he won't run, but his endorsement could provide a dramatic boost to any candidate in the race, as it did for Howard Dean in 2003.

I expect Gore to support someone similar to Dean in this race -- a Washington "outsider." I'm sure Joe Trippi -- a former Dean adviser now working for John Edwards -- covets an endorsement from Gore, but it's hard to say whom Gore plans to endorse. The Dean endorsement was a big surprise in 2003; I expect another surprise in 2007.

Pundits pooh-pooh the effect of endorsements such as those from unions, elected officials and stars. But I believe the Oprah effect will be interesting to watch. I expect the Clinton camp will be watching closely, too.