DES MOINES, Iowa - Remember back a short two months to October, when New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was coasting confidently - even inevitably - toward the Democratic presidential nomination? Polls in the first two state contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, in addition to national surveys, all showed her with comfortable - bordering on lopsided - leads over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards. The press had an explanation for that near-total Clinton dominance.
With a stunning uniformity, we in the political press corps marveled both in print and on the air at the "flawless," "professional," "masterful" and "exceptionally disciplined" campaign that Hillary Clinton, a skilled and unflappable candidate, had assembled and led. By contrast, the campaigns of her trailing opponents, while committed and enthusiastic, it was regularly reported, simply could not compete with the professionalism, the personnel and the remarkable political sophistication of the Clinton juggernaut.
Now with barely two weeks left in the Iowa campaign, the Clinton candidacy has stumbled. Her once-commanding leads in Iowa and New Hampshire have disappeared. Campaign staffers have had to resign - and Clinton, herself, forced to publicly apologize - for negative statements made and circulated about her leading challenger, Obama. There are reports of tensions and possible personnel shake-ups involving the leadership of the front-runner's campaign. Suddenly, the Obama and Edwards campaigns are getting more positive and respectful press coverage.
Here, you have on public display the dirty, little secret of the political press corps (of which I remain a card-carrying member). Every four years, and more often when necessary, the political press relies upon the identical formula to explain the outcome of the presidential contest: The campaign manager, staff and counselors of the winning candidate are truly brilliant, uniquely in touch with the nation's mood and shrewder at every turn than their opposite numbers on the other side. It's simple - winners are geniuses and losers are seriously flawed humans.
Here, after the last candidates' debate before the caucuses, I asked David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, what had happened in the last two months that had miraculously transformed him from a Chicago provincial, an overmatched amateur, not quite ready-for-prime-time, into the suddenly diabolically clever David gravely threatening the Clinton Goliath in Iowa and New Hampshire. His answer is a cautionary note for all those with press passes reporting on this campaign: "You're never as smart as you look when you're winning, and you're never really as dumb as you look when you're losing."
Axelrod is right. Everybody - that's right, everybody - is an amateur at running for president.
When George W. Bush won a majority of the popular vote and a second term in 2004, what was the press' explanation? Simple: Karl Rove was a political genius. And when an unpopular President Bush and his stewardship turned into the albatross that cost the GOP control of Congress, what was the consensus? Karl Rove was manifestly no longer a genius.
Get ready. If the Iowa Republican winner turns out to be overwhelmingly outspent former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabe, we will read about his "dedicated band of gifted 'country-slickers,' who grasped the moment and the momentum to write political history," etc., etc., etc. Or maybe it will be Mitt Romney's "coolly composed professionals on a mission" or maybe even Fred Thompson's "indomitable, inventive believers, who ignored the scoffs of opponents and the media to turn the political world on its ear."
There you have it, the dirty little secret of the political press to explain the outcome of our national elections.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.