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Mark Shields - Chinks form in Clinton's armor

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Les Biffle remains the most legendary American "pollster" whose name nobody knows. During the 1948 presidential campaign - when literally all the Wise Men of the press corps (there were among the press no acknowledged Wise Women in 1948) had, long before a single vote was cast, named Republican Thomas E. Dewey the winner over Democratic President Harry Truman - Democratic operative Biffle, disguising himself as a butter and egg salesman, traveled throughout the Midwest. Listening only to ordinary voters, he turned out to be the only semi-public figure to correctly predict the historic Truman upset victory.

In 2008, Ann Selzer, the Iowa pollster who works for the Des Moines Register, joins the ranks of Les Biffle. Selzer, braving and enduring the abuse of professional politicians and her polling colleagues, correctly predicted that caucus turnout history would be made, and she was right: Nearly three out of five caucus participants were first-timers, one-fifth were independents and better than one out of five was a young voter. The Iowa Caucuses in 2008, as she had predicted, were no longer the exclusive province of party insiders. Kudos to Ann Selzer!

What we have learned: In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale emphasized his long career in the Senate and as vice president in his nomination contest against an exciting but relatively unknown newcomer, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Mondale was told that "experience" was the political equivalent of "a pair of deuces" in poker - only good until a better hand comes along. In 2008, when 70 percent of Democrats chose change (represented by Barack Obama and John Edwards) over experience (embodied by Hillary Clinton), that political pair of deuces was soundly trumped.

The establishments of both the Republican and the Democratic parties, which have respectively backed Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, find themselves on the horns of a painful and complicated dilemma. The two upstart insurgents who have confounded the establishment plans - Democrat Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee - represent the most reliably dependable constituencies of their respective parties, African-Americans and evangelical Christian voters.

This means simply that the party establishments, in their efforts to defeat the insurgents and rescue their preferred former front-runners, cannot be seen as trifling with or disrespecting candidates who are representative of their party's most loyal - and most needed - voters.

The two defining qualities most prized by voters so far in 2008 turn out to be authenticity and unity. Huckabee is persuasively authentic, and Obama's message of unity - so eloquently expressed in his memorable victory speech - more than resonates with voters disgusted by the slash and burn politics of recent presidential campaigns and Washington, D.C.

If the Clinton campaign turns out not to be as "inevitable" as the Washington wise guys had all predicted, much second-guessing and sniping will be recorded over the uneven, even erratic, performance of the most naturally gifted Democratic politician of the last generation, Bill Clinton.

Unlike former president George H.W. Bush - who was used sparingly and discreetly in George W.'s campaign as a personal and professional reference for his son - Clinton has been at best a mixed blessing for his wife. By denying the obviously provable - that he had supported the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq - Clinton raised an issue his wife (because of her Senate vote for that invasion) would have preferred not to discuss. He also indirectly attacked Obama by arguing that the election of the young Illinois senator would risk "rolling the dice."

A senior Clinton campaign advisor explained the former president's problems this way: "Not only is he rusty politically, but he is undisciplined, because for the past seven years he has been making speeches before admiring and uncritical audiences. He wasn't ready for the rough and tumble of this campaign."

Stay tuned. This is about to get interesting!

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