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Now, it's Bill who's stumbled

November 7, 2007 | 12:08 am

Now, wait just a minute. Did you see what Hillary Clinton's husband suggested late Monday? That criticism of her in the last week by those Democrats competing with her for the party's nomination was comparable to the Swift boat smear campaign against the party's nominee, John Kerry, in 2004.

Give us a break! 

As the transcript shows, a week ago tonight H. Clinton was doing just fine in the Philadelphia MSNBC debate up until the last half-hour or so. Then in two areas -- driver's licenses for illegal aliens and finally opening up her first lady archives to public scrutiny as she had promised long ago -- she started to bob and weave and dodge. In an interview with Candy Crowley on Tuesday, Clinton admitted, "I wasn't at my best the other night."

And her opponents -- especially Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Barack Obama, who all trail badly in national polls -- pounced during and after the debate because her reaction played right into a preexisting image of her as a calculating parser of words who'll always try to have it both ways with careful answers that won't come back to bite her in the backside during the general election campaign.

And, gee, why would anyone doubt the word of a Clinton?

Because she had done so consistently well by being careful in previous debates, Clinton's sudden ...

fudging stood out. They weren't anything near fatal mistakes. They were nicks. But now it's the Clintons' own revealing reactions that have turned the minor stumbles into a big deal with real political legs. And caused many to wonder about deeper things, to her challengers' advantage. Even the Republicans have chimed in.

The day after the debate Clinton's campaign manager, Patti Doyle, dispatched an e-mail appeal to supporters for funds, playing the gender card by suggesting the guys at the debate were "piling on," six against one. Doesn't that just take you back to the playground in fifth grade?

Then Clinton spoke to the gals at her alma mater and said the all-girls school had prepared her to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics. And when she caught flak for playing the poor female victim, Clinton admitted, quite accurately, that the boys had gone after her because she was something called the front-runner.

There's no way Obama or Edwards is going to become 30 points more popular. For them to catch Clinton, she's got to become less popular, too. It's called politics. And that's what competing campaigns are supposed to do -- test all the candidates and reveal their cracks, whether one candidate thinks she's won it already or not.

Some new post-debate polling data indicates that's exactly what has at least started to happen in recent days -- Clinton's still leading substantially, but her support is slipping noticeably since the debate.

Now you'll see some real piling on, especially since Bill Clinton has uttered this latest Swift boat overreaction. (Interestingly, a video of those remarks was deleted from YouTube on Tuesday with the terse notation: "This video has been removed due to terms of use violation.")

"I was pretty stunned by that statement" by the former president, Obama said today. Dodd was even more vehement. "To have the former president come out and suggest this is a form of Swift-boating ... is way over the top in my view," Dodd said.

"If elected to the presidency," the Connecticut senator added, "there will be a lot of tough questions, and if you can't handle it in a debate without accusing everybody who has an issue with you of piling on or a sexist attack somehow, first of all that's unwise, and secondly it's false."

Time will tell. The standard political pattern for Clintons when they make a public mistake is to back up and come back out even smoother and stronger and smarter, as if nothing had happened. It's always worked before.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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