For Democrats, winning is the thing

It was just another refueling stop on the long, long drive to the convention in Denver.

When six Democratic presidential contenders took their turn addressing an Iowa labor group here this month, every one of them walked away recharged by audience applause.

But there was attentive silence, too, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York got to the bottom line in her closing remarks.

“I think we have to win this election,” she said, the inflection of her voice stressing the words.

She rattled off things her party’s faithful see in the balance — not only the war in Iraq, but health care, energy policy and economic issues.

“Therefore, I’m running a campaign right now not just to win the nomination, but to win the general election and to beat whatever Republican they put up,” she said. “And I think I know how to do that.”

That assertion — her ability to beat the other guys — has emerged as the single biggest point of contention in an accelerated contest to win the party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

With just one year left before the balloons drop, there are three types of contenders in the race:

— Those who still are trying to figure out a route that starts them rising toward the summit in Denver.

— Those who can imagine riding a bandwagon for “change” to reach the podium at the Pepsi Center.

— And then there is Clinton, who is in a tier all by herself atop the national polls and already, quite openly, thinking past her presumed coronation in the Mile High City.

That, the experts say, is what folks do when they have double-digit leads. They start talking about “when,” not “if,” they reach the general election.

Still, Clinton’s nomination is not a foregone conclusion that any of her rivals is willing to concede — especially with 12 months of water to flow under the bridge between now and convention time.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois stirs change-hungry crowds by linking Clinton, a divisive figure since her days as first lady, to “the political patterns that we’ve been in over the last 20 years.”

He draws stadium-sized crowds and nudges war-weary voters away from her, even as he defends himself over a perceived lack of experience.

“Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war,” Obama said in a televised debate last week, as the camera cut away to show Clinton’s reaction. “And it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington.”

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, long considered the favorite to win the first caucus state of Iowa, pokes at Clinton’s inevitability by reminding people of this same point in 2003.

That August, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean held a wide lead in the polls, only to falter after that November’s capture of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He finished third in the Iowa caucuses and went out — with a scream — long before anyone started packing their bags for the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Edwards, who topped the “inevitable” Dean in 2004 and ended up as the running mate for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is trying to upset the early conventional wisdom again.

He focuses on an anti-poverty message, by running as a Washington outsider — the antithesis of the former first lady — and by raising doubts about the “electability” of the others.

Likewise, Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and others sound the “electability” theme, pledging to bring in new voters who might be turned off by the traditional Democratic pickings.

And that’s the way the rivals would like to portray Clinton — as the same old, entrenched D.C. creature.

Despite her high showing in national polls — which she consistently leads by between 15 percent and 20 percent over Obama — Clinton still has the specter of negative personal approval ratings hanging over her head.

That goes back to her husband’s 1992 race, when she made it clear she wouldn’t be the traditional, stay-at-home first lady. It goes back to her failed front-line battle for health-care reform. The polarizing presence goes back to the war with the so-called “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

And the specter is not going away, which feeds into Democrats’ greatest fear.

It’s a fear that, yet again, even with nationwide angst over the Iraq war, widespread disapproval for the lame-duck Republican president and other issues seemingly giving Democrats all the advantages, Clinton’s polarizing past could be a motivating factor — maybe the only one — that rallies the GOP to a 2008 comeback.

Toss in the recent public spats between Clinton and Obama over foreign policy, and some wonder if the party is setting itself up for trouble heading into the sprint to Denver and the general election.

The party’s leading cheerleader doesn’t buy it.

“No, that stuff is nothing compared to what’s happening on the Republican side — my lord,” said Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, beaming in the spin room after last week’s ABC News debate at Drake University in Des Moines.

But the sniping between Clinton and Obama has been intense at times — particularly during a recent skirmish over diplomatic strategy, when Clinton branded Obama with a bumper-sticker-sized word: “naive.”

The fund-raising battle has been fierce, too, with Obama posting such staggering numbers that it’s clear he’ll be the first person Clinton sees each time she looks back over her shoulder.

But there are others there, too, trying to stay close in case one or both of the hard-charging front-runners stumble.

There’s Edwards.

There’s Richardson, the Hispanic governor, former congressman, Cabinet member and ambassador, saying he’s the “2-for-1” candidate who represents both experience and change.

There’s Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, promoting an Iraq partition plan and warning Democrats that they need to talk more realistically about a troop withdrawal.

There’s Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a 2004 campaign veteran, saying he’s the only proven “peace candidate” in the race.

There’s Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, touting his experience — from the Peace Corps to the Senate — and making a new call for national service.

There’s Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska, turning up the volume on the anti-war message, if nothing else.

And, if only in some Democrats’ imaginations, there’s former Vice President Al Gore, not quite ruling out persistent rumors that he’d consider an 11th-hour political comeback.

All this is taking place in an atmosphere of unprecedented media scrutiny a year away from the nominating convention.

With no incumbent president and no sitting vice president in the race, the folks who write the first drafts of history sense that they’re in the middle of something big — a campaign for the ages.

Every television news outlet wants to put its stamp on the race, too. So they’ve been putting the contenders through a dizzying number of debates — unheard of at a point on the calendar when it’s supposed to be about fund-raising and bite-sized events in cozy little diners.

Some say that, considering the front-loaded calendar, the primary contest could be settled earlier than ever. Or could it be just the opposite?

“There’s so much intensity, everybody has their pockets of support, that it may get all the way to the convention” before the race is really decided, said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan.