Trouble in Hillaryland

A senior Democratic senator fretted in a holiday receiving line that "this celebrity thing" could run away with the presidency. It's dawning on the Washington Establishment that their candidate could lose, swept away by a charismatic upstart and a talk show host. Word is even leaking out from Chappaqua and Harlem that the big gun is confiding to who knows whom that not all is not well in Hillaryland.

And whose fault is that? Hillary was doing pretty well on her own until Bill started whining about the boys ganging up on her and the media mistreating her. But that was nothing compared to his declaration that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. That little bit of revisionist history landed like a live grenade in the middle of Hillary's campaign, exploding a year's worth of positioning to put the Iraq war vote behind her.

The key point the former president seems not to have fully absorbed is that the race is not about him, it's about her. Reporters have taken to counting the number of times he says "I" in his speeches, compared to his mentions of Hillary. He can't help himself. He's focused on his own legacy and standing, and it's hard for him to be in somebody else's shadow. "It makes you wonder what her presidency would be like. If he's second-guessing and undermining her campaign, what would he do to an administration?" says a veteran Democratic strategist who is in Hillary's camp.

Bill's grousing feeds the notion that Hillary, a candidate running on competence and experience, is not really up to the job—and that she'd need to bring him in to save the day. Democrats love Bill Clinton, but too much of him brings back memories, not all of them fond, during a campaign in which change has emerged as the dominant theme. Bill reportedly thinks the campaign needs to be more aggressive, that his wife's advisers were inclined to sit on their early lead—resulting in its vanishing, at least in New Hampshire. But they've also been clumsy in taking on Barack Obama, in my view—making another blunder this week that resulted in the resignation of Hillary's New Hampshire campaign chairman, Bill Shaheen, for dredging up Obama's admitted past drug use. In what looked like one of the oldest campaign tricks in the book, Hillary pollster Mark Penn managed to repeat the charge even as he disavowed its place in the campaign. "It's dangerous for her," says the Democratic strategist. "She has high negatives. She cuts someone else up; she cuts herself down."

There isn't any argument over Hillary's Achilles' heel: the perception that she lacks likability and warmth. The campaign put up two new ads in Iowa this week: a testimonial from Hillary's mother, 87-year-old Dorothy Rodham, who talks into the camera about how she'd want Hillary elected even if the candidate weren't her daughter, and an appearance by Chelsea Clinton in a campaign ad as a backdrop to her mother talking about values. Most voters have never even heard Chelsea speak, she's been so sheltered throughout the Clintons' time on the national stage. But in Iowa the former and possibly future First Daughter will soon be a familiar figure.

With three weeks to go before the Iowa caucus, John Edwards is the one who's smiling. After a stint as the angry man in the race, he's back to his sunny self, and with Hillary sniping at Obama and Obama jabbing back, the gates to victory could open for Edwards in Iowa. Short of winning herself, that's the next-best outcome for Hillary—or so the experts agreed at an election panel assembled Thursday morning by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Analyst Michael Barone assumes Edwards could be stopped in New Hampshire, where he is polling a distant third (and finished fourth in 2004), or in South Carolina, where he is receiving very little evident support from African-Americans, who make up half the Democratic primary electorate. Hillary could survive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, said resident scholar Norm Ornstein, adding it would be "a triumph of hope over experience," a play on the campaign themes.

Of the three likely scenarios coming out of Iowa—a Hillary win, an Obama win, an Edwards win—Barone pegged Hillary as the eventual nominee in two of the three. Others aren't so sure. Bob Shrum, who helped manage the last two losing Democratic presidential campaigns, told NEWSWEEK that if Hillary loses Iowa and New Hampshire, "she's through. Where would she go? South Carolina?"

In truth, it's hard to imagine the Clintons leaving the stage whatever happens. If Hillary manages to win but not by a landslide, and Obama is a close second with a substantial number of delegates, then what? Vice President Obama? Or maybe a secret deal to name him to the Supreme Court, which is what Jeffrey Toobin, author of "The Nine" speculated earlier this year as one way for Hillary, should she win the presidency, to remove Obama as a competitor forever. Knowing Hillary's propensity to carry a grudge, having Obama as her running mate would not be her preferred outcome, plus it might be a bridge too far when it comes to making history, a woman and an African-American on the same ticket. As for Obama, if he comes that close to cracking the Clinton dynasty, it will be hard to take the vice presidency away from him if he wants it. Obama has moved very far very fast, but what matters more than the numbers—Iowa remains a tight race—is the trend line, and that's beyond the control of Bill Clinton and in the hands of Iowa voters.