Hillary At 60

Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
For many people, the 60th birthday is more a time of mourning than a time of celebration; I bet Hillary Clinton isn't one of those people.

It's not just that her birthday bash at Manhattan's Beacon last night raised some serious money. It's that as she hits this milestone, the political community has decided that she is somewhere between unmatchable and untouchable.

She leads her nearest rival Barack Obama, by some 30 points in the race for the Democratic nomination. She has leads ranging from the narrow in Iowa to the significant in New Hampshire to the astonishing--40 points or so--in California and New York.

Moreover--and more significant--her chief opponents have so far not managed to gain any traction with their principal arguments. This does not--I repeat, not--mean that this nomination is settled, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. It's just that, as of now, nothing that was supposed to matter has mattered to most Democratic voters.

Her vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2002? Barack Obama says that demonstrates his judgment on the most crucial issue of the day was better than hers. Former Sen. John Edwards? He voted the same way she did, but now says he was wrong, and that we need a President with the courage to admit he--or she, in this case--was wrong. Both say her vote labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group shows she has not learned the lesson fro Iraq.

What do Democrats say? More think it likely that she would pull most of the troops out of Iraq than think the same of Obama or Edwards. And the Iran vote has so far failed to register--partly because Obama did not bother to show up for that vote, and partly because a number of Democrats who did not vote with Bush on Iraq supported this resolution.

What about the idea that Clinton is tied to the past -- that, as Obama repeatedly says, we need "a leader to break out of conventional thinking?"

For one thing, Clinton has seized on the "change" issue--the first words out of her mouth at may town meetings are "are you ready for change?" For another, this is a case where her gender clearly works for her. How can the prospect of the first woman President mean anything but change? (As a substantive matter, of course, it's entirely possible that a woman can be a cautious temporizer, but in a political sense, "first woman" clearly equals "big change").

Nor have her other vulnerabilities mattered--so far. She is supposedly a divider, a polarizer--but by a 3-1 margin in a new CBS News poll, Democrats at least see her as a uniter. John Edwards says she's a creature of special interests, taking tainted campaign money. That one has yet to catch fire.

And then there's the sheer persistence factor. If Woody Allen was right when he said, "90 per cent of life is just showing up", Clinton has showed up big time. No less a foe than ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich gives her serious props for the fact that, as often as she's been hit for the last 15 years, "she gets back off the floor, she goes right back to work, she doesn't hold grudges."

So is it time for the acceptance speech? Not yet---at least not according to Mike Murphy, a top Republican strategist who was a key player in John McCain's nearly successful insurgent campaign of 2000,

For Murphy, none of the national polls matter; history shows they change dramatically after the first tests of the season. Moreover, he says, "she's very vulnerable in the rank and file side of the Democratic primary...yes, everything's working--except whether or not she, with the record and with the fact that in a change election she in some way represents the past, --we're going to find out in the last two week of the Iowa caucuses--not yet."

So, yes, it would be a good idea to let somebody--anybody--actually vote first. On the other hand, the news that Iowa Democrats have moved their caucuses to January 3rd--giving the trailing candidates less than 72 hours to make a case against Clinton between New Year's Eve and the caucuses--is yet one more present for the candidate who is probably (in the words of Mark Twain) going to spend her birthday "smiling like a Christian with four aces."