Which one?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Clinton Report Card: Sturdy Candidate, Wobbly Campaign

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The Hillary Clinton presidential quest is a puzzler.

She won the Iowa caucuses by a hair, just enough to soften the impact if she loses the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. She trails in polls there but the race is probably closer than it looks. Her campaign has checked most of the political good-practice boxes. She's a superb debater, which will be on display again Thursday night, and she has a better chance than any other single candidate to become the next president.

Yet she's a mediocre campaigner. There is more confusion than clarity to her message and the controversy over a private Clinton e-mail account won't go away.

QuickTake Perils of Polling

Aides insist that she's found her stride. Not yet. I've watched her on the stump four times in the past week and her performance is uneven. She often seems to be screaming. My wife says I’m holding her to a sexist double-standard – that I wouldn’t say that about a man. But I'd say the same of her rival Bernie Sanders and would not say it about most of the scores of women whose campaigns I've covered for four decades.

A good stump speaker finds rhythms, builds to key points. Shouting too much is like underlining too many paragraphs in an essay. (In the current contest, the best pure orator is the Republican Marco Rubio. Clinton could also pick up pointers watching clips of her husband, Bill, who talked his way to two terms in the White House.)

Substantively, the message swerves back and forth. In Iowa, where President Barack Obama is off-the-charts popular with Democrats, she often sounded as though she was running to give him a third term. Sometimes, on the other hand, she’d seem to be channeling Sanders's angry populism. Then she’d go back to being the knowledgeable, sensible professional.

The Clinton campaign underestimated Sanders and still misunderstands him. Yes, it's probable that after the first batch of contests his wins will become scarce and her nomination will seem inevitable. Then, some Clinton insiders believe, party leaders will press the Vermont senator to bow out and make peace.

If they do, it won't work. Sanders isn't interested in party peace. He's animated by his democratic-socialist cause, which he's pursued for his entire political life. However few delegates Sanders may collect in the upcoming primaries and caucuses, he will carry his message to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July.

The controversy over Clinton's use of a private e-mail account when she was Secretary of State, possibly sending sensitive documents from it, still haunts her. A continuing investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation makes some Democrats nervous. It's impossible to know when or how it will be resolved.

Still, Clinton has a lot going for her. The Iowa victory mattered; a loss there would have produced panic in the Clinton camp. The policy team has produced serious and substantive initiatives. Money is no problem.

The bottom line: She's in pretty good shape but has little room for complacency.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net