There's a whiff of something like panic among the pollsters, consultants, acolytes and other ladies in waiting in the court of Hillary Clinton.
The one-time Lady Macbeth of Little Rock before she scraped the Arkansas buckshot mud off her sturdy matronly pumps and became a New Yorker looked invincible at Halloween and for a few weeks afterward but suddenly her campaign plane over Iowa looks a little like a broom and a prayer.
Some polls there put her running behind Barack Obama, with John Edwards trailing not far behind. The trouble she made for herself a month ago, with garbled answers to a simple question about driver's licenses for illegal aliens, continues with yarns about dirt on Mr. Obama that she's saving for a later kill. Now there's a new controversy over the suspicion, utterly believable, that her campaign connived with CNN to plant questions meant to sabotage Wednesday night's Republican debate. Hillary once pulled a similar stunt in Little Rock. She showed up to spoil the rally where a rival of her husband announced that he would run against Bill in his last race for governor, and the next morning the story was all about her.
You can measure the size of the butterflies in Hillary's tummy by the enthusiasm, forced though it may have been, with which she greeted the endorsement of Barbra Streisand, a not particularly welcome guest at the Clinton White House after Hillary sniffed unfamiliar perfume in a familiar bed. But after Oprah Winfrey threw in with Barack Obama, the former first lady's wise men figured they had to come back with a Hollywood diva of their own. Hillary decided she had to be big about Babs.
The hour is not yet late, but people are finally beginning to pay attention to the endless round of "debates" and to focus on the coming caucuses and primaries. The CNN "debate" among the Republicans, cooked if not sabotaged, drew the largest "debate" audience so far, suggesting that at last even grown-ups are beginning to take notice.
Some of the Democrats are privately asking the first what-if questions, not necessarily expecting the end of the world next year, but, well, "what if?" What if she actually loses Iowa, and runs a poor second in New Hampshire only days later? How invincible will she look then? How inevitable? Money, which maybe can't buy you love, can't always buy an election, either. You still have to get more people to vote for you than anyone else can.
Money can, of course, buy formidable firewalls, or at least Maginot Lines. The public-opinion polls show Miss Hillary far ahead in South Carolina, in Michigan, in New Jersey and in other important early states. Some of the margins exceed 30 percent. The conventional wisdom says her Maginot Line can't be breached, but they said that about Marshal Petain's Maginot Line, too, and Herr Hitler streaked through it without popping a sweat. A Maginot Line constructed of dollars is another matter, of course, but then why the whiff of panic, ever so slight, among the Hillary Democrats who only yesterday were measuring the White House windows for new draperies?
The curse of the front-runner is well known in presidential politics. Think Ed Muskie, who cried when someone criticized his wife and his campaign, which everyone thought was embarked on a cakewalk to the nomination but evaporated overnight. Henry Cabot Lodge returned from Saigon in 1968, where he had been a moderately successful ambassador, to collect the Republican presidential nomination by acclamation. At the convention several months later, he ran far behind Richard Nixon, trailing even a forgettable senator from Hawaii named Hiram Fong. Stuff happens.
Hillary's problem is not just that she's a front-runner, but that she's been sold as invincible and thus inevitable. And maybe she is. Money is hard for anyone to beat, and she's got a lot of it. But an invincible, inevitable candidate can't afford to lose not even once.