Hillary Clinton faces some strong candidates in her bid to win the Democratic nomination for a tilt at the presidency and needs to step up to the plate, writes Bette Browne.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential dream could risk dissolving into a nightmare battle unless she can stiffen her spine and present her case with style and substance in tomorrow’s first Democratic debate in the White House race.
As the frontrunner, she is the one with most to lose. If she flunks the debate or is damaged by her rivals it could trigger serious consequences.
Among these could be the subsequent loss of at least one of the two opening primaries in the New Year when Democrats will decide whom they want to run for the presidency.
The loss of one or both of these primaries in Iowa or New Hampshire could set the stage for a battle Clinton never expected, with shades all over again of her failure against Barack Obama to secure the nomination in 2008.
Dogged by controversy and falling poll numbers, Clinton — like most women who are tested — will thus have to do not just as well but far better than her four male rivals in the debate, particularly a surging Bernie Sanders.
Indeed, with the absence of vice president Joe Biden who has to still decide if he’ll run, the Democratic race at this point is essentially a Clinton versus Sanders match-up.
Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont, is drawing enthusiastic crowds and threatening Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, while leaving the other three contenders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Web, struggling for even single-digit poll numbers.
The rise of Sanders has dismayed some in Clinton’s campaign. They expect she can win Iowa but are said to be wobbly about New Hampshire and are floating the idea that she should take her foot off the accelerator there and concentrate instead on later primary voting states, like South Carolina.
Such a move, however, could be disastrous for her because if Sanders prevailed in New Hampshire it would be an astounding, even game-changing, victory that would deal her a very serious setback.
He would be unlikely to go on to deny her the nomination ultimately because he is too far to the left for most Democrats but in the meantime he could dent her standing, weaken her resolve and deplete her funds, making it a much tougher general election battle for her against the Republican nominee.
So if she wants a smoother road ahead she needs to show the right amount of steel and style tomorrow. It won’t help that, unlike the crowded Republican field, there will be only five candidates on the stage so each one will have ample opportunity to inflict damage on her as the front-runner.
A key Clinton campaign organiser in New York, lawyer Brian O’Dwyer, is confident his candidate will triumph in the debate.
“Basically, what Hillary needs to do in the debate has less to do with substance than with style. She needs to show the public what we have all known in private that she is a very caring human being,” he said.
He also believes that she can go on in the New Year to take Iowa. But he admits New Hampshire may be tougher. “She is holding her own in Iowa,” he told me. “Her 20-point lead is sufficient to give her a convincing win. She will have her challenges in New Hampshire but the next primary after that will be South Carolina where she is projected to have a convincing win.”
But if Clinton does emerge weakened after the debate, it will embolden not just Sanders but also O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, who is struggling to raise his profile and will probably be the candidate to watch most closely.
He is known to be fired up for the debate and, as someone who badly needs more air-time and face-time with voters, he has been pushing the party to hold more than the six scheduled encounters.
Conscious of what she is up against and eager to contrast herself especially with Sanders, who is seen as vulnerable on gun control, Clinton seized on the issue after the recent Oregon shootings, vowing to tighten gun laws if elected.
It’s an issue on which Sanders has a mixed record. He has supported a number of gun-control proposals in Congress but in 1993 he voted against the landmark Brady handgun bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period for gun purchasers. In 2005 he backed legislation granting legal immunity to many in the gun industry.
Apart from O’Malley’s close connection with Kilmilken in Co Galway, from where his great-grandfather emigrated in the 1880s, there’s also another Irish link in the debate. Among those who have been helping Clinton to frame issues for the encounter are two power players from the Irish diaspora.
Their roots, like those of many of the 40 million Americans of Irish descent, have become hazy with the passage of generations, but their names are a giveaway—Ann O’Leary and Jeremiah “Jake “Sullivan.
Both were chosen by Clinton earlier this year to rev up her campaign, still reeling from the email controversy, and have sought to put the focus back on domestic economic and foreign policy issues.
Certainly, Clinton has become more contrite in recent times about her mishandling of the email saga while at the same time fleshing out details on issues like economic inequality and pushing plans for family leave for parents caring for sick children — issues in which O’Leary’s imprint is unmistakable.
Both O’Leary and Sullivan are also highly regarded in Irish-American circles. Stella O’Leary (no relation of Ann O’Leary) is president of the Irish American Democrats lobby group and knows Sullivan very well.
“Jake Sullivan is the most versed in the Irish political situation of any American official. Like Hillary Clinton he is genuinely interested in seeing that the peace agreement in Northern Ireland continues to work,” she said.
O’Leary and Sullivan are both veterans of Clinton’s 2008 bid but this time they are determined to seal the deal and will be anxious to see if she can lift her poll numbers after this debate and move the spotlight away from Sanders.
In debate preparation, the Clinton team has apparently used Sullivan as a stand in for O’Malley — another indication he may be the man to watch closely.
“The debate will bring into sharp focus O’Malley’s huge likeability advantage,” according to Jim Cavanaugh, a lawyer in Omaha, Nebraska, and a heavyweight in that state’s Democratic politics, who is backing O’Malley.
“He is by far the most naturally genuine of the group. He can discuss any political issue, foreign or domestic. He’s a regular guy. Americans like regular guys. A lot.
All he really needs to do in the debates is be himself. Hillary has peaked, Bernie has plateaued, stay tuned for Martin. He’s the next big thing.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved