WHEAT RIDGE, Colo.—Steve Valdez, a retired high school history teacher, is keeping an eye on the presidential campaign and wondering about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chances.
“Is history ready?” asks Valdez, an independent voter, unsure whether voters will embrace the controversial former first lady for president.
With Clinton consolidating her lead over Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, her Democratic rivals are increasingly questioning her ability to win the White House in a general election. They say her polarizing persona will keep her from defeating a Republican, hoping the seeds of doubt they plant now will cause voters to look their way come primary or caucus day.
Ever since Clinton stepped onto the presidential stage with her husband, she has been a lightning rod on the right and sometimes the left. She offended some women when she defended her decision to work, saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” She raised eyebrows when the public learned she had turned $1,000 into $100,000 from cattle futures trading. And she became a political target when she tried to overhaul the health-care system with closed-door meetings.
Her opponents argue that Clinton engenders such hostile feelings that she will energize Republicans against her and other Democratic candidates, particularly in swing states such as Colorado. Already, the Republican National Committee is taking aim at Clinton multiple times a day while virtually ignoring her rivals.
The question of electability is often tied up in a candidate’s likability, and in Clinton’s case, it could also be an alternative way of asking whether a woman can be elected president. It is a loosely defined but fundamentally important part of the formula for a winning candidate.
“I think there’s no doubt that she carries some significant baggage,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, adding that her high negative ratings would only get worse in a general election. “I guess water sometimes runs upstream, but the history of presidential politics is not that people go in and reduce their unfavorables. That’s not the way it works.”
David Bonior, Edwards’ campaign manager, said Republicans will “unload on her” in a general election, dredging up “the personal stuff.”
“There are just a lot of local state officials and activists who are very nervous about having her at the head of the ticket,” Bonior said. “They think she will be the catalyst to unite the Republican Party with great fervor, they believe she will be a tremendous drag on the ticket and that we will forfeit the opportunity to make gains in the Congress, state legislatures and gubernatorial seats.”
However, Clinton campaign officials say Obama and Edwards are losing the so-called electability argument, as poll after poll shows the New York senator beating not just them, but each of the Republican candidates.
A new Gallup poll shows 50 percent of Democrats support Clinton, compared to just 21 percent for Obama and 13 percent for Edwards. A CNN poll finds 45 percent of voters believe she is most likely to win the general election - far more than any other candidate. And the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute shows Clinton beating each of the Republican candidates in the key battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“I think you’re seeing a higher level of frustration and desperation,” said Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, of Obama and Edwards.
How Clinton would fare next November is an open question here in Colorado, a state that denied John Kerry a win in 2004 while handing Democrats victories in a string of recent congressional, legislative and gubernatorial races.
Pat Waak, the Colorado Democratic chairwoman, is optimistic that any of the Democratic candidates can carry the state, noting that Republicans’ numerical advantage over Democrats has dropped 25 percent over the last three years and unaffiliated voters seem frustrated with the status quo.
“What I hear from (Republicans) is their disenchantment with the war in Iraq, the budget deficit and the feeling that their party has been taken away from them by extremists,” she said.
Dick Wadhams, on the other hand, said he can hardly wait for Clinton to win the nomination. The state Republican chairman believes Clinton will harm the chances of Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is running for Senate.
“I think she’s going to be an albatross to any Democratic candidate in Colorado in a competitive seat,” Wadhams said. “I’m looking forward to Hillary Clinton being nominated president of the United States in downtown Denver in August 2008 with Mark Udall standing by her side and every (Democratic) candidate for the Legislature saying, `Why on Earth did we bring this convention to Colorado?’”
In this Denver suburb flanking the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range, Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters are evenly distributed. And across the political spectrum, people expressed uncertainty about Clinton’s chances.
“I love Hillary!” said Mary Madrid, an unaffiliated voter who works as a supervisor at a senior center, adding that she was doubtful about whether Clinton could overcome the state’s conservative nature. “I think the country is ready for a woman president,” she said, “but Colorado is not.”
Two friends sitting outside in the sunshine drinking coffee questioned the wisdom and the likelihood of another Clinton presidency.
“I’m a Democrat, but I don’t really like Hillary Clinton,” said Megan Thompson, an interior design student, leery of revisiting the “negative” elements of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Hair stylist Katy Mullins, also a Democrat, said she didn’t think Clinton could do worse in office than President Bush, but “I just don’t think you’ll get people voting for a woman.”
On Capitol Hill, Clinton’s effect on contested races is a steady topic of conversation among Democrats.
“It certainly is brought up more by Democratic senators from red and purple states,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is backing Obama. “They feel that she would have to work hard to carry their states.”
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., who succeeded a Republican this year in representing this suburban enclave, said he’s heard the same chatter but believes Coloradans are ready for a change of party in the White House no matter who the nominee.
“Republicans are going to drag up the past as much as they can. That’s the upside and the downside of Hillary Clinton,” said Perlmutter, who has not endorsed anyone. “She brings the experience, the competence and the confidence—and she also brings some of the past.”
A large, critical block of Colorado voters are neither Republicans nor Democrats, and Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster based in Denver, said those unaffiliated voters are eager to send the GOP a message.
“They’re just fed up and they’re voting on bigger issues,” Ciruli said. “That helps her. It really doesn’t matter how controversial she might be.”
When Clinton first ran for the Senate from New York in 2000, few thought she could overcome voters’ animus, but she won in a virtual landslide. Clinton has worked to do the same thing nationally, reducing voters’ unfavorable view of her from the high 40s to the low 40s.
Meanwhile, voters like Valdez, the former history teacher who now works as a night manager for a liquor store, is continuing to monitor the race in advance of Colorado’s Feb. 5 caucus vote. So far, he has not picked a candidate.
“I’m still looking,” he said. “I won’t make a decision until the very last minute, until I’m sure.”