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League of Her Own

Part of me hated to see Barack Obama jump into the presidential race. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against the senator from Illinois. But I had a theory about how the contest for the Democratic nomination would play out, and I worried that Obama's entry could complicate things.

My theory was that the race would largely be a referendum on Hillary Rodham Clinton and on whether her party thinks she could win the general election. Virtually every Democratic voter knows her, and up to 83 percent have a favorable opinion of her. If they decide she can win, I reasoned, most would vote for her. It would come down to whether they see her as a winner.

So, this theory goes, the Democratic nomination contest would amount to two NCAA-style brackets. The top bracket would be the Hillary Clinton bracket. She would be the only one in it, and she would get byes all the way to the final. All of the other candidates would be in the second bracket, competing with one another.

Eventually, someone would emerge as the alternative to Clinton, most likely after the Iowa caucuses. Former Sen. John Edwards, I figured, had the best chance to become the un-Hillary because he is better-known than the rest and has a head start in Iowa.

Once the alternative won his bracket, I theorized, the contest would come down to whether Clinton could close the sale by convincing her party that she could win the White House.

After the November midterm elections, our Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polling showed a jump in the percentage of Democratic voters who thought that Clinton would have as good a chance of winning a general election as any other Democratic nominee. That number had been only 47 percent last February and 46 percent in August. In mid-November, it rose to 60 percent and stayed there in December.

Gone, it seemed, was the low self-esteem that afflicted Democrats after losing two consecutive presidential elections and giving up House and Senate seats in back-to-back elections. Their party's big victories in the 2006 midterm election put a little starch in Democrats' shorts, making them more optimistic about 2008 and Clinton's chances of winning. My theory was looking very promising.

Did Obama's entry fundamentally change the race? With all of the interest and energy that the wall-to-wall media coverage assured us he was generating, lumping him into the second bracket with the Bidens, Dodds, Edwardses, and the rest didn't seem justified. Yet national polls taken after Obama's announcement make me think that perhaps my theory still holds. He could be just one more of the alternatives whom Democrats disinclined to support Clinton could choose from.

In five major national polls last month, Clinton averaged 37 percent support among Democratic voters; Obama, 18 percent; Edwards, 12 percent; and former Vice President Gore (who is very unlikely to run), 10 percent. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware averaged 3 percent, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson came in at 2 percent. No one else averaged more than 1 percent.

Although Obama runs 6 points ahead of Edwards, that does not put much daylight between them. Perhaps the original two brackets still stand, with Obama and Edwards the favorites in the lower one. Arguably, Obama's star power is tempered by concerns about his inexperience: He has held a major office for only two years and has never won a tough race. Obama walked into the Senate in 2004 after the overwhelming favorites for both parties' nominations in the race were sidelined by scandal.

Whether Obama's freshness offsets his rookie status is up to voters to decide. Handicappers should be more concerned that he has never taken a punch -- unlike Clinton, who won a tough Senate race in 2000; Edwards, who has run for president before and who defeated an incumbent to get to the Senate; or, for that matter, everyone else in the race.

To change sports analogies, maybe Obama will turn out to be a prizefighter, even though his past knockouts were more at the club level and he is now headed into the heavyweight championship of the world. So far, my money is still on Clinton.

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