Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently has hit a speed bump on the way to her coronation.
"In a debate against six Democratic opponents at Drexel University Tuesday, Clinton gave the worst performance of her entire campaign," said Roger Simon, whose column appears in JWR.
"She fell off the tough-shrill balance beam onto the 'shrill' side with a THUD," said Mark Halperin of Time magazine.
Mrs. Clinton flip-flopped within the space of two minutes on whether she supported or opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and her opponents called her on it.
We're now likely "to see clips of that meandering response show up in attack ads for the rest of the race," said David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register.
This probably won't matter much as far as the Democratic nomination is concerned. Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards demonstrated yet again they are not ready for prime time, and the presence of both in the race keeps the anti-Hillary vote from coalescing around a single candidate.
But it could spell big trouble in the general election. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reported a shocking result from a recent poll. In a head-to-head matchup with Libertarian fruitcake Ron Paul, Hillary drew just 48 percent of the vote.
This was not because Rep. Paul, who is polling in the low single digits among GOP voters, has had a sudden burst in popularity.
"When we polled among people who knew who Ron Paul is, she got 48 percent of the vote," Mr. Rasmussen said. "When we polled among people who didn't know who Ron Paul is, she got 48 percent of the vote."
In head-to-head matchups against more likely Republican nominees, Mrs. Clinton trails former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani slightly; has slight leads on Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson, and a larger lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In each of these matchups, Mr. Rasmussen said, Mrs. Clinton gets between 46 and 49 percent of the vote.
This suggests that though Mrs. Clinton has a solid base of support, there is a ceiling on it, and that ceiling is south of a majority. In a Zogby poll Oct. 20, half of the respondents said they'd never vote for Hillary Clinton, up from 46 percent in March.
This doesn't mean Hillary can't win the general election. Her husband was elected twice without ever winning a majority of the popular vote. But it does suggest the pundits who've all but handed her the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are premature.
In the last seven presidential elections, no Democrat has won a majority of the popular vote (although Bill Clinton and Al Gore won pluralities). Bill Clinton failed to win a majority despite running as an incumbent during a time of great prosperity against a weak candidate. Foreign policy a Democratic weakness since the McGovern candidacy in 1972 wasn't an issue in Bill Clinton's two elections, and he possesses campaign skills his wife lacks.
If Mrs. Clinton is to prevail in the general election she must, as in the primaries, divide to rule. She may get help from petulant conservatives.
The polls make it clear Rudy Giuliani is the Republican most likely to beat Mrs. Clinton. But his nomination could spark three splinter candidacies on the right.
The first could be by a pro-life candidate who is offended by Mr. Giuliani's pro-choice views on abortion. This would be a clear case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. The issue of abortion will be settled in the courts. The next president likely will appoint two, and perhaps as many as four, Supreme Court justices. Mr. Giuliani has said he'll appoint judges like Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Hillary Clinton will appoint judges who will make sure Roe v. Wade is the law of the land forever.
The second could be an immigration restrictionist. Mr. Giuliani might be the strongest of the Republicans on border security, but his views about illegals who just came here to work are too kind for some.
The third and the most likely is that Ron Paul will run on the Libertarian ticket. This should help Republicans, because most of the votes Mr. Paul likely would get would come from moonbats apoplectic about recent successes in Iraq. They are angry with Mrs. Clinton for suggesting she wouldn't withdraw all troops immediately upon taking the oath of office.
A Paul candidacy excepted, the arithmetic of the 2008 election is clear. In a two-candidate race, the Republican wins, especially if the Republican is named Rudy Giuliani. In a multiple candidate race, Hillary Clinton wins.