The Audacity of the Anti-Hillary

TOM VILSACK? Pack your bags. Joe Biden? Hit the road. Chris Dodd? Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

The 2008 presidential campaign has started. For many, it's ending before it began. We all know Hillary Clinton is in, no matter how coy she plays it. So the only other viable candidate is going to be the anti-Hillary.

It happens every time. Eight or 10 people announce, and it comes down to two opposites battling it out. Kerry and Dean. Bush and McCain. Clinton and Tsongas.

With Hillary, the other "centrist" Democrats like Iowa Gov. Vilsack can't distinguish themselves, while other career insiders like Biden won't be able to "out-populist" her. Also-rans like Dodd and Rev. Al Sharpton don't have a prayer.

Since Al Gore says he's not running, there seem to be only two candidates who can play the spoiler - ex-Sen. John Edwards and current Sen. (and rock star) Barack Obama. The race to take on Hillary is between these two, so everyone else might as well get out of the way.

If I was a betting woman, I'd put my money on Obama. He may be seen as a longer shot than Edwards right now, since Edwards has been preparing to run since November 2004. But when Obama announces (and I think he will), money, organization and talent will flood in. Obama certainly is taking all the steps to ensure that it happens.

First, he's is setting himself up as the real progressive to counter Hillary's centrist, Democratic Leadership Council tendencies. While Hillary once sat on the board of Wal-Mart, Obama has staked his claim as a leader against the discount chain's lack of labor protections and community involvement.

While Hillary strives to be seen as strong on national security by refusing to admit the war in Iraq was a mistake, Obama doesn't run from his anti-war credentials. While Hillary cozies up to corporate titans like Rupert Murdoch, raising big money, Obama has become a leader on ethics reform, calling for an independent ethics commission to keep tabs on Congress, and sponsoring legislation with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn to give greater transparency to government grants and contracts.

While John Edwards has grabbed poverty as his issue, and had warm meetings with labor, he has a thin record to run on.

Of course, many politicians set themselves up as the heroes of the progressive community only to crash and burn when Election Day came. Example 1 would have to be Howard Dean.
Dean grabbed the progressive mantle from John Kerry, but he never really put together the organization to seal the deal. This was evident during the Iowa caucuses, where the Kerry team had up to four organizers at each site, while in many cases Dean had none. Kerry and second-place finisher John Edwards ran strong ads - Dean's were pitiful.

Obama has been smart enough to learn from that history, and jumped ahead of Edwards in putting together a team to win the first test in Iowa. According to veteran Iowa political reporter Tom Beaumont, Obama has obtained the services of some of the biggest political hitters in the state, including Dick Meyers, the ex-State House Democratic leader. He's also poached consultants who know the state, like Edwards' 2004 ad man Steve Axelrod and Vilsack pollster Paul Harsted.

Will money be an issue? For Edwards, it could be. He doesn't have the big-business connections Hillary has, and is in danger of losing the small-donor Internet community to Obama, who could become the darling of the netroots.

AND THERE'S ONE more wrinkle.

Oprah. As an unabashed Obama fan, imagine if Oprah Winfrey asked all of her viewers to send $10 to the Obama campaign. Multiply that by millions, plus the netroots, and you have the best-funded candidate in the race.

Barack Obama's best-selling new book is called The Audacity of Hope. Maybe that's his philosophy of life, but there's no wishing and hoping in how he's setting up his presidential run.

He's proving to be as shrewd as they come.