Hillary's loss of inevitability Dukakis-esque

In Arkansas, one of her three home states, Hillary Clinton long ago landed the endorsement of nearly every Democratic officeholder in sight.

These endorsers explained that she knew and understood the state. They asserted that this intimacy would accrue to the state's advantage if she became president.

If you weren't buying that, they'd mention that she was going to win, first the Democratic nomination and then the whole thing. The implication was that you'd be wise to get on board now.

This was hardly unique to Arkansas. It provided the very essence of Clinton's campaign. She was going to be the Democratic nominee, thus the only hope against the Republicans. Hadn't you seen the polls? She was about to lap everybody.

So that brings us to a new question: If your campaign is all about the inevitability of your victory and everyone's practical acceptance of that, which facilitates your running a centrist campaign designed for general election appeal even during your own primary, what do you do when you begin to appear not so inevitable and voters in your own primary are given to reconsider the practicalities?

In other words: If what you had going for you was that you were going to win, and if this inevitability overpowered your perceived vulnerabilities regarding a lack of apparent warmth and that you are seen as overly calculating and famously polarizing, what do you have going for you when you fall behind in Iowa and into a tie in New Hampshire?

Self-fulfilling prophecies are fine so long as they self-fulfill.

There are two most obvious choices for Clinton. One is to veer left to pander to the base, thus abandoning the old strategy. That's for the final stage of desperation. The other, better for panic's early stage, is to attack the main rival, Barack Obama, on his impractical liberalism.

But you don't do that on account of liberalism itself, for that would offend the base. You do it on the argument that the rival's liberalism makes him ripe for dreaded Republican exploitation.

This asks primary voters to cast a strategic rather than sentimental vote. It worked for John Kerry in 2004. He swept to the nomination on prevailing Democratic thinking that his war heroism would make him the strongest candidate to put forth at a time of war. Republicans knew and respected that, which is why they produced Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

So it was that Clinton's campaign learned fortuitously the other day of an old questionnaire that Obama submitted as a candidate for the state Senate in Illinois in 1996. He answered that he opposed any form of capital punishment as well as any restrictions on abortion and supported an effort to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns in the state.

He blamed it on a campaign staff member and disavowed most of it.

Still: Can you say Michael Dukakis? Hillary surely wishes you'd say it, or at least think it.

Leading by 17 points after the Democratic convention, Dukakis got beat badly in 1988 largely because he was against capital punishment even if his wife was raped and murdered and had once said that, if he had his way, he'd disarm the entire state of Massachusetts.

Hillary's campaign trotted out the duck-hunting Democratic attorney general of Arkansas to say he saw a lot of Hillary bumper stickers on gun-racked pickups where that "W" used to be.

Here is essentially what Hillary is now saying: You and Oprah may like Obama more than you like me, and you might even agree with what he said back then. But you're going to like my cold calculations a lot better come late October.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.