For the past year, Hillary Clinton's Democratic presidential nomination has seemed inevitable. She raised more money than any presidential candidate in history. She performed well in an endless series of debates. She carved out careful positions on difficult issues, protecting her left flank while not alienating moderates. She used her husband to woo crowds and raise money, while never letting him overshadow her on the hustings.
But now, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the Clinton campaign has suddenly lost its air of invincibility. With Barack Obama now surging in the polls, Hillary has begun to sound not just defensive but downright shrill. While most of her early firepower was aimed at George W. Bush and the Republicans, Hillary has been taking some pretty nasty potshots lately at fellow Democrat Obama, and her campaign has unleashed the attack dogs.
In New Hampshire this week, Clinton state co-chairman Billy Shaheen told the Washington Post that if Obama wins the nomination, Republicans will exploit his past drug use to defeat him. It was a clever ploy to raise the subject of Obama's cocaine use without appearing to criticize him directly.
Obama has never tried to hide his past. In his memoir "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," Obama wrote about his struggles with identity, having been raised largely by his white grandparents after his African father abandoned him and his mother went off to pursue her own life.
"Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though," he said.
But Shaheen warned that Obama's candor would only exacerbate the problem. Having opened the door by admitting cocaine use, Shaheen said, "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."
Of course the Clinton campaign isn't worried about whether Republicans will beat Obama but whether Obama will beat Hillary. And, so far, the dirty tricks against Obama have all been the Clinton campaign's. And no matter how staunchly Clinton denounces Shaheen's comments, her campaign is ultimately responsible.
Maybe the Clinton campaign's brass knuckle tactics will work, but they also pose enormous risks for her candidacy. Like it or not, women candidates face a double standard: They are expected to be tough enough to demonstrate leadership, but if they are too hard-edged, they come across as unfeminine, cold and unappealing.
Few people doubt Hillary's leadership qualities. She is a commanding presence and sounds authoritative, even if you don't agree with her. But she can also come across as aloof, calculating and ruthless. And this is her Achilles' heel.
Hillary has done a lot to try to soften her image over the past few years, from wearing pastels to smiling effusively. This week she even enlisted her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and daughter, Chelsea, to campaign with her, as if to remind voters that she, too, is a mother and a daughter, not just a presidential candidate.
Hillary's balancing act worked better when she was way ahead in the polls. She could afford to remain above the fray so as not to come off as hard and overly ambitious. But as her poll numbers slip, she's having a harder time maintaining that balance.
True character is always more transparent when times are tough than when things are going well. As Hillary Clinton faces a real challenge from Barack Obama, voters will have the chance to judge her as she really is, not as her handlers and advisers have tried to mold her for the broadest appeal.
But if this week's gutter sniping at Obama is any indication, voters won't like what they see. And even if her campaign harms her Democratic opponent in the process, Hillary may inflict the worst damage on herself.