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Mark Shields - Message from Philadelphia: Don't count Hillary out

Philadelphia: The last six weeks have not been Hillary Clinton's best. Ever since her first bad debate performance of 2007 in this city in late October, she has spent most of the time on the defensive - forced to answer questions about her own positions, her husband's statements and her campaign's tactics. She has seen her lead in national polls shrink and in some Iowa surveys disappear completely.

But here in Philadelphia in the first week of December, a two-hour focus group of 11 Democratic voters, conducted expertly by pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a clear message: Don't count Hillary Clinton out of the 2008 race.

These Philadelphia voters, even those for whom she is not their first choice, see her as knowledgeable and competent. Retired school administrator Romayne Sachs, 77, backs Clinton for being the "strongest in experience."

To 51-year-old Ed Suchy, who works in the meetings industry and who, like so many in his party, desperately wants to win the White House in 2008, she is "electable." To Red Cross manager, Lynda Connelly, 58, the New York senator possesses "a strong sense of compassion."

But if these Philadelphia voters see strength, experience and competence in Clinton, they also find equally compelling qualities in her principal rival, according to the polls, freshman Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Craig Gilmer, a 27-year-old recruiter, put it this way: "I really like Hillary Clinton a lot," but he is inspired "every time I hear Obama speak." Allison Lowrey, a 30-year-old human resources consultant, deems Obama "very bright." Suggesting almost a generational pattern, Chris Haig, 30, who works in health care, finds himself captivated by Obama's "optimism" Cheryl Ewing, a 47-year-old travel manager, apparently discounting the experience card, prefers Obama expressly because he is a "new face with new ideas."

But the widely reported tensions and divisions between the Obama and Clinton campaigns nationally made no difference to these Philadelphia Democrats. All would vote for Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards against any Republican. The one possible exception was undecided Democrat Ray Kempenski, 38, an attorney who said, "If John McCain got the Republican nomination, I would reconsider."

When Hart asked "if you had to have a Republican president" in 2008, who in the GOP field each would pick, McCain was the landslide choice, although Clinton-backer Linda Connelly chose libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani showed next-to-no crossover among these Democrats. When asked for "a word or phrase" to best describe Giuliani, business owner Andrew Alebergo, 39, answered, "One-trick pony." To Venetta Allen, a 55-year-old retiree, Rudy is "overrated." Other responses included "narcissist," "shyster" and "bully."

What kind of a boss would these would-be presidents be? Obama sounds like the ideal chief. Here are the comments he elicited: "compassionate," "inspiring," "motivational," "willing to listen," "patient" and "considerate." Hillary Clinton, as a boss, would be "tough," "demanding and difficult," "demanding, but fair," "tolerant," "smart" and "difficult." And Rudy? A representative sampling: "A pain," "high-maintenance" and "arrogant."

Pollster Hart asked the Philadelphians what they thought each of the candidates would do with two hours of free time. Lynda Connelly sees Hillary Clinton "reading policy." Allison Lowery imagines her visiting with "uninsured people." A more skeptical Ray Kempenski says that what she would do "depends on what the polls say."

Obama, according to Lowery, would spend the two hours "volunteering." Four others said he would spend free time reading or writing. Chris Haig thought he would be "reading to his children."

For Democrats who base their 2008 vote decision primarily on hope and for the America they dare to wish for, Barack Obama is their choice. But for those Democrats - and there are many of them - who prize experience, toughness and perceived competence, Hillary is still very much the pick.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.