This political game consists of five levels. The trick is to complete each level without making a fatal mistake.
Level One – undeclared candidate. Clinton slid through, but not without scars. Her candidacy was viewed as inevitable – or worse, pre-ordained – and she could never compete effectively with other undeclared opponents prior to last April. She had to answer about Benghazi while they sampled corndogs at the state fair.
Level Two – declared candidate. Clinton's getting bruised, in part because she's shadow boxing herself. With due respect to Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, they’re never going to be the Democrats' nominee for president. Yet, Sanders is proving in New Hampshire and Iowa that many voters enjoy rooting for a maverick in the early going. Clinton must weigh her words carefully, knowing the eventual GOP nominee will toss them back at her. Sanders needn’t worry; he’ll never reach that level.
Level Three – campaigning in primaries. By January, Clinton will be able to focus more on issues and target her message in early primary and caucus states. But she’ll never excel without a proper opponent. If Joe Biden enters the race it would actually make her a stronger candidate.
Level Four – general election. Here’s where Clinton will hit full stride. Although she's not a great campaigner, and is certain to come under vicious attacks as Election Day draws near, going one-on-one with a single Republican will be vastly easier for her than slogging through the pre-convention levels.
Currently, the overcrowded GOP field, plus the bombastic presence of Donald Trump, mask the fact that there is no single Republican who can out-debate or out-perform Clinton.
Level Five – the White House. If the nation gives her the chance, she would prove to be a better Chief Exec than candidate. In the two posts she has held, senator from New York and Secretary of State, she has been calmly efficient – a genuine force in world affairs and powerful advocate for domestic reforms.
At the moment, in Level Two, Clinton is seen by many, myself included, as starchy and uncharismatic. Likeability does matter in politics, so perhaps this is one area in which Clinton is too much like IBM's Watson.
Another issue is trust. Americans tell pollsters they worry about candidates who are “untrustworthy," but unless they sink to Nixon-like levels, I don't think it counts much. Why? Because voters don't believe any politician can be fully trusted. Indeed, they're convinced that some degree of deception is necessary to keep the country prosperous and safe.
So, at this point the answer is, “Despite early troubles, she still has the best chance to win the 2016 presidential game.” To which Watson would ask, “Who is Hillary Clinton?”
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle syndicate.