Jun 15th 2006 From The Economist print edition Democrats have growing worries about the front-runner for the presidential nomination. But can they stop her? LAST autumn, Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Commander-in-ChiefĂ˘â‚¬, a prime-time drama about America's first female president, opened to 16m viewers and a media love-fest. Surely now that Hollywood had anointed the first female president, in the lissom form of Geena Davis, the real thing could not be far behind? Alas, last month ABC unceremoniously pulled the plug on the series. A growing number of Democrats wish that their party would do the same with Hillary Clinton's (still undeclared) bid for the presidency. Mrs Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination by a large marginĂ˘â‚¬â€ťwith $20m in her war chest, 36% of Democrats favouring her candidacy compared with just 16% for Al Gore, her nearest rival, a well-oiled national machine inherited from her husband, and a chance to pivot neatly from her Senate re-election campaign in November to a national race. Yet hardly a day passes without signs of doubt in her party. In a recent poll of likely voters in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, which kick off the presidential season, Mrs Clinton came second to John Edwards, John Kerry's running mate. A straw poll among the so-called Kossacks who frequent the Daily Kos, a liberal website, gave her 2% of the vote. The anti-war left might even field a candidate against her in the New York Senate primary. Some of these doubts were on display this week at a Washington, DC, conference organised by the Campaign for America's Future. The 2,000 or so activists were the sort of people who happily stand up and cheer whenever you mention Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“taking back our countryĂ˘â‚¬ or Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“the misleaders in the White HouseĂ˘â‚¬. A roster of leading Democrats, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, did just that. But the response to Mrs Clinton, decked out in an orange trouser-suit, was much more nuanced. The audience delivered dutiful applause whenever she urged more money for education or health care. But a few booed even before she took the stage. And a vocal minority erupted in protest when she talked about Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“keeping faith with the troopsĂ˘â‚¬. She left the room to cries of Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Bring them home, Hillary.Ă˘â‚¬ Mrs Clinton's biggest problem goes deeper than the angry left. One poll (by Gallup) shows that 51% of registered voters would not consider voting for her. Another poll (ABC News/Washington Post) showed that 42% of Americans have either a Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“strongly unfavourableĂ˘â‚¬ or Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“unfavourableĂ˘â‚¬ view. Many Democrats are drawing the obvious conclusions from these extraordinary negative ratings: in a survey of Democratic voters in New York state, 57% said that it was either Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“not very likelyĂ˘â‚¬ or Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“not likely at allĂ˘â‚¬ that she could win a presidential election. Mrs Clinton is not only an enormously polarising figure. She also has more than her fair share of skeletons in the cupboard. Remember Marc and Denise Rich? Remember Giftgate (when the Clintons left the White House with more than $100,000 in loot)? Remember cattle futures? Many Democrats worry that a Clinton candidacy will galvanise the Republican right at a time when it is depressed and divided; that it will make it harder to attract Republican moderates who are increasingly alienated from their party; and that it will allow the Republicans to change the subject from the Bush scandals to the Clinton scandals. These doubts are reinforced by worries about her political persona. Look at her decision to co-sponsor an anti-flag-burning amendment, or her discovery, despite her continued support for partial-birth abortion, that abortion is a Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“tragic choiceĂ˘â‚¬, or her fulminations against the laziness of the young. All these seem to be crude attempts to mollify Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“values votersĂ˘â‚¬. It is true that Bill Clinton did much the same thing. But he managed to dress his move to the centre in the language of Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“New DemocracyĂ˘â‚¬. Mrs Clinton clearly hoped that she could move to the centre without alienating the Democratic base; the danger is that she is annoying the base without persuading the centre that she is electable. The Hillary trough is coinciding with a Gore boom. Mr Gore is currently the darling of the Democratic leftĂ˘â‚¬â€ťa prophet, hero and elder statesman rolled into one. Mr Gore was one of the first senior Democrats to denounce the Iraq war, and a relentless critic of King George's centralisation of power. His decision to build his environmentalism into a global-warming crusade was a political masterstroke, humanising him and providing him with a platform that most of the Democratic base likes. Towards the glass ceiling But doubting Hillary is one thing. Derailing her is quite another. The woman in the trouser-suit still has enough in-built advantages to survive a storm of doubtsĂ˘â‚¬â€ťfrom star power to a national political network to a fearsome reputation for taking revenge on people who cross her. The studio-dwelling Kossacks may dislike her, but she has solid support from more established interest groups, from minorities to the trade unions. Mrs Clinton's supporters point out that the Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“skeleton in the cupboardĂ˘â‚¬ argument works both ways; most Americans remember the Clinton years as an age of peace and prosperity. They also point out that she stands up well to any of her potential rivals. Mr Edwards is stuck in a Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“two AmericasĂ˘â‚¬ rut. Mark Warner, Virginia's ex-governor, comes across as a lightweight, they say, vague on details and bereft of foreign policy experience. The new Al Gore contains the old Al Gore, made of best hardboard and just waiting to come out. Hillary, by contrast, is disciplined, focused and relentless, with a mastery of domestic policy and years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. All this guarantees a wild ride for the Democrats in the coming political season. A large number of candidates will stay in the race, waiting for Mrs Clinton to trip on some mouldering bone or other. And even if she wins the nomination, the Democrats will remain nervous, thrilled by the possibility that their party might break America's ultimate glass ceiling, but terrified that Mrs Clinton is just too polarising to do it.