WASHINGTON — The Democratic contest in Iowa — and possibly the battle for the party’s presidential nomination — hangs on whether Hillary Clinton can use the next two weeks to encourage second thoughts about Barack Obama, and get voters to take a second look at her.

A month and a half ago, Clinton was widely seen as the inevitable victor. Now, she faces a moment of great peril.

For most of 2007, Clinton benefited from a virtuous cycle. Her continuing lead in the polls slowly eased Democratic doubts about her ability to beat the Republicans next fall. Her crisp debate performances reinforced her message that she would be ready “on Day One” to be president. This fed back into more good poll results.

But her spiral downward began with a single mistake in an Oct. 30 debate over a New York state plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, even as she was coming under more aggressive attack from Obama and John Edwards. The decline affected her standing not only in Iowa, but also in New Hampshire, which was supposed to be Fortress Clinton.

Yet Clinton’s difficulties owe to deeper flaws in her strategy. These include an early ambivalence about competing in Iowa; the failure to link her arguments about experience to more inspirational themes; and an underestimation of Obama, bred by his sluggish performance during the summer. She thus emphasized positions — in favor of a tough Iran policy, for example — potentially more helpful in a general election campaign than with a Democratic electorate.

That Clinton is only now rushing to complete visits to all of Iowa’s 99 counties reflects the fact that some in her campaign, according to a memo leaked in May, once considered having her skip the state’s caucuses altogether. David Bonior, Edwards’ campaign manager, said last weekend that Clinton was running behind both his candidate and Obama in many of the state’s rural counties.

And if Obama, with his soaring and idealistic rhetoric, has been more theme than pudding, Clinton’s campaign has been more pudding than theme. It frustrates the Clinton camp that Obama’s policy proposals, particularly on health care and taxes, have received limited critical scrutiny. But at an Iowa Democratic dinner on Nov. 10, Obama, after a lackluster summer, managed to hit a well-timed emotional peak. He found an effective line of criticism against Clinton with a passionate call for change and a broadside against “the same old Washington textbook campaigns.”

The Clinton camp believes that Obama and Edwards have gotten a free ride in the last month or so. Clinton’s lieutenants and supporters note that while her campaign’s attacks on Obama have been roundly criticized, it was Obama who joined Edwards in attacking Clinton first, at little cost.

This has forced the Clinton campaign to move aggressively on its own to raise a slew of questions about Obama’s past. But some of these efforts backfired and suggested a campaign in panic. That was especially true of a statement by a Clinton operative about Obama’s openly confessed drug use in his youth, and the campaign’s invocation of Obama’s kindergarten jottings to show he had always harbored presidential ambitions.

Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign has had to continue to sow doubts about Obama. Former President Bill Clinton used “The Charlie Rose Show” on Friday to ask if Democrats were willing to “roll the dice” on a candidate with Obama’s brief Washington experience. Earlier in the day, Hillary Clinton had said that with her candidacy, “there are no surprises.”

Clinton’s endorsement last weekend by The Des Moines Register was an important break because the paper echoed her closing argument.

Clinton, the Register concluded, was the candidate “best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces.” Obama, it said, was “more inspirational,” but “with his relative inexperience, it’s hard to feel as confident he could accomplish the daunting agenda that lies ahead.” Clinton hopes the endorsement will mark the campaign’s next, and last, turning point.

The danger to Clinton, despite her lead in the national polls, is that a loss in Iowa on Jan. 3 could easily cascade into losses in New Hampshire on Jan. 8 and in South Carolina on Jan. 26. And while the Clinton camp would welcome an Edwards victory in Iowa as the alternative to an Obama win, it’s now possible that Edwards could drive Clinton into third place.

Hillary Clinton’s demanding task is to keep doubts about Obama high in the minds of Iowa voters while finding the dash of inspiration that has so far eluded her campaign. Achieving both objectives at the same time will be the greatest challenge of her political life.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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