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Clinton's Miles Ahead of the Pack Despite Attacks

The junior senator from New York looks like a lock, and Rove's message was to the GOP.

Karl Rove -- the retiring political brain behind President Bush -- made two predictions in the last week:

1) Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) will win the Democratic nomination, and

2) She couldn't possibly win the general election because of her high "negatives."

The pundits rushed to analyze what Rove had to say. They debated his motives, with many opining it was reverse psychology -- anointing Clinton to avoid a somehow more dangerous Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) -- with parallels to 2004 when Rove attacked Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) to build up a beatable opponent.

The pundits got it wrong.

If I were to compare Kerry to someone in this election, it would have to be Obama. Kerry and Obama have similar styles. Both tend to give long and wonky answers to questions that leave the average person less than inspired. This has worked against Obama in the debates to date. His campaign recognizes it and decided to pull the plug on any unscheduled debates.

What the pundits didn't bother to question was whether Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. That's because they assume it's a done deal. The first primary vote won't be cast until early in January, and her aura of inevitability stands firmly in place.

How did it happen so soon?

The early attacks on Clinton missed the mark. Everyone loves to point out what a polarizing figure she has been historically. But two books released in the spring casting her in a negative light were quickly ignored as rehashes of old news, and a loud collective yawn issued from the public.

Clinton followed up by outperforming the other candidates and being more presidential in the debates. Her formula has been quick, on-point answers, while letting more of her personality shine -- at times humble about her past mistakes on health care and often with fiery responses in defense against attacks.

Clinton's opponents hoped to make hay on her 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq. It hasn't worked for two reasons. First, the vote has often been mischaracterized. The legislation was supposed to allow inspectors to return to Iraq to conclude inspections and if Saddam Hussein didn't play ball, he would face the specter of force. The Bush administration short-circuited the process, however. This policy failure can't fall on the shoulders of one senator.

Second, the average American supported action in Iraq at that time. Bush's approval ratings were above 80%, and few questioned his choices. Clinton's vote was in lockstep with how people felt. Her change of heart on Iraq since has tracked consistently with the opinion of the general public.

Clinton also has received help from her opponents. I mentioned Obama's debate problems, and his inability to inspire people poses a dilemma as I said in a

previous article. John Edwards has turned off voters of late. He has become the angry candidate, and his poverty gamble fails to garner support from a middle-class electorate.

The bettors agree -- Clinton's the inevitable nominee. I have been watching the trading of her contract to win the nomination at

TheStreet Recommends It has soared in the last month. It rallied to 66.5 from about 40 (read it as a percentage chance to win the nomination) when I checked it on Wednesday. Obama's contract has dropped --

as I predicted last month -- down to 18 from a high of 39.9. Ouch.

I spoke with Clinton's campaign about her success. The campaign only commented that it takes "nothing for granted and is working hard to earn every vote."

The Negativity Factor

Rove and others often repeat that Clinton's negatives will cost her a win in the general election. I disagree.

Sen. Clinton's negatives remain as residue from rhetoric in the 1990s. She notes that much of that image was created by right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh. These same media figures and newer ones also jacked up Al Gore's negatives in 2000 and Kerry's in 2004. Would it be different for any other Democratic candidate this time around? Only the naïve think so.

Clinton's trends have been improving steadily during the campaign. Her negativity ratings have decreased with more exposure, and she has been strengthening her lead in the polls. She has proved she can weather attacks while staying focused.

More positives surfaced this week. She traveled to Arkansas to get the endorsement of Gov. Mike Beebe (D., Ark.). One of the events took place in Fayetteville -- a staunchly Republican outpost that Bill Clinton couldn't win in a congressional race in the '70s -- where interested spectators spilled out of an ice cream shop onto the streets and into a parking lot during an incredibly hot and humid day.

A poll from

Survey USA

also reported good news for Hillary Clinton in three southern states. She beats the top three GOP candidates -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson -- in both Kentucky and Virginia, and barely loses to Giuliani and Thompson in Alabama (but beats Romney). The GOP cannot afford to lose red states to Clinton.

Also, the people at Gallup released


countering Rove. They say that high unfavorables remain unusual but wouldn't prevent a win. Both President Bush and Bill Clinton pulled it off in races with similar numbers.

I return to the question of Rove's motives for attacking Clinton. I don't think it was Machiavellian in any way. He's sending a signal that the right-wing noise machine had better start attacking before Clinton gains that aura of inevitability in the general election to match the one she has gained ahead of the primaries.

You can bet that attacks will come. But the attackers had better find some new material on Clinton, or she will surprise them in the end.