Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom of Washington proclaimed that Hillary Rodham Clinton could not be stopped from winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Today, the same wise men and women hint that she has forfeited the prize.

What must always be remembered is that the mainstream media amplify her campaign’s errors and diminishes her strengths in ways that can be misleading. Foaming expressions of hostility to Sen. Clinton are considered normal among the Beltway pundits, especially on cable television and talk radio. Such constant emotional outbursts tend to distort political news and analysis.

In that environment, her opponents are not held accountable by the same standard that is applied to Clinton. For many months, both Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards have been tossing out attack lines that they hoped would bring down her formidable numbers. Obama has not hesitated to use harsh language to question her character, her sincerity, her fitness to serve and her capacity to govern if elected. He has reserved his toughest rhetoric for the Democratic front-runner, while suggesting that he will find common ground with the Republicans. That may explain why Obama has won endorsements from a panoply of Republican operatives and spokespersons, including former White House political boss Karl Rove and David Brooks, the neoconservative voice on the New York Times Op-Ed page.

Yet it is also true that the events of recent days have exposed weaknesses in the Clinton campaign. There may be no sense of panic in her headquarters — and there is almost certainly no nefarious strategy of demonizing Obama, her leading rival — but the clumsiness of her surrogates and staffers has made her campaign look panicky and scheming at once. At the very least, their blunders have provided ample ammunition for cheap shots.

It is hard to imagine that the Clinton campaign conspired with Bill Shaheen to introduce the subject of Obama’s youthful drug use, or urged Bob Kerrey to blather on about the Illinois senator’s middle name and Muslim heritage. It is much more likely that both men were simply opening their mouths without thinking too hard about the consequences, which is to say, simply being themselves. Expecting Clinton to control every blurted stupidity of her supporters is unfair.

But digging up an Obama kindergarten essay about his presidential aspirations was plain dumb, even if he started the silly exchange over who is more ambitious. That may have been the work of an overzealous junior researcher. Sending senior strategist Mark Penn to defend her on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” however, was a bad decision made at the highest level. A controversial figure because of his unsavory public relations clientele, Penn proved to be neither prepossessing nor nimble. He only worsened the damage done by Shaheen’s remarks when he uttered the word cocaine and then allowed himself to be drawn into a shrill debate over what he had just said.

The tin-eared Penn may not fully understand the potential consequences of that exchange — which has been televised again and again — but the Clintons surely should. To the black Americans who have long been their most loyal supporters, that cocaine reference carries an unmistakable tinge of racial politics, which must be avoided in this contest for both moral and strategic reasons.

All these ugly, petty controversies have distracted Clinton from pointing up her differences with Obama in approaching Social Security and national health insurance, which offered a clean, clear way to deter his challenge. Instead, she is apologizing and explaining.

Surprisingly, the disputes that have lately monopolized so much news coverage and commentary have not dented her national appeal significantly. Although Clinton faces difficulties in Iowa and New Hampshire, the latest USA Today/Gallup poll shows that she has started to recover the commanding lead that began to diminish in late November, after her poor debate performance.

Conducted over the weekend of Dec. 14-16, the Gallup survey shows Clinton gaining six points and moving up from 39 percent two weeks earlier to 45 percent among registered Democratic voters. Obama moved up as well in that poll, by three points, from 24 percent to 27 percent, leaving him still 18 points behind the front-runner. Support for Edwards and the rest of the Democratic field remained essentially the same.

Consistent with those numbers are other polls indicating that Clinton’s troubles in Iowa and New Hampshire have not surfaced so far in the big states, whose primaries will determine the ultimate winner.

She has been slowed, but not stopped — and she should not be underestimated.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer (www.observer.com).

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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