Meet the presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton.

By Jerry Reynolds -- Today staff


WASHINGTON - A recent extensive profile of Hillary Clinton tried to get at the core of her character through a baseball moment.

Her father, Hugh Rodham, wasn't the type to express affection easily, the article states, adding that he did so indirectly through unstinting support of his tomboy daughter in her various interests. One of them was baseball; and the father proved a devoted coach, putting an instructive spin on countless pitches until the batter understood instinctively that she had to know the break on the ball before she took a swing. Clinton herself tells the Washington Post that it's not a bad approach to life in general.

That would mean another possibility is also worth noting: the one where you get caught looking, frozen with the bat on your shoulder over a ball that didn't break as anticipated.

Once the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination by such a margin that critics tried to discredit her campaign as a coronation, the New York senator and former first lady finds herself in a three-way heat with Barack Obama, the Illinois senator, and former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards. In the nation's first presidential electoral event, the Iowa caucuses, the race tightened suddenly, somewhere between Clinton's sub-par performance in the first Democratic candidate debate at the end of October, and Obama's celebrity endorsement by Oprah Winfrey and their subsequent triumphal speaking engagements.

Clinton responded by talking tougher on the subject of Obama's track record, a strategy of dubious merit after her campaign co-chairman in New Hampshire smeared America's first viable black presidential candidate by insinuating that in a national campaign, Republican dirty tricksters would find weapons to use against him in his long-acknowledged teenage drug use. The insinuations didn't stop at implied drug-peddling, and Clinton immediately disavowed them, apologizing personally to Obama in the process. Obama accepted the apology and brushed off the remarks, ascribing them to increased pressure from Clinton's declining poll numbers. The campaign aide resigned once it became clear the damage had been done.

According to the prevailing view among political commentators, the Clinton campaign has enough cash in the bank to stumble in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, or even in the New Hampshire primary five days later, and still recover in time to mount a comeback before a scatter of state primaries on Feb. 5, less than a month later, may settle the nomination. Clinton's bank account means she can purchase visibility via media to set the record straight in key campaign precincts. But the compressed primary schedule leaves little time for such recoveries.

And of course, Clinton isn't conceding a setback in Iowa. At the final Democratic candidate debate before the Iowa caucuses, only a day removed from her aide's discredited remarks about Obama, Clinton got the bat off her shoulder for sure, stroking a home run by many accounts as she declared herself a hard worker for change where others only hope. A reference to the signature word of Obama's biography and campaign, the remark played to her strong suit of proven experience within the embattled policy-making process.

Clinton has announced her support for improved Indian health care, education, law enforcement, housing and economic development, and Indian country has played no discernible role in her recent travails. Attendees at the National Congress of American Indians convention in Denver in November showed support for her in ubiquitous lapel pins and regular hallway conversation, according to an Indian Country Today reporter who was present throughout the proceedings. Endorsements from tribes and individuals have continued to come in. In Iowa, where the Sac and Fox Tribe has endorsed no candidate but historically votes Democrat, according to executive officer Larry Lasley, Clinton counts among her supporters tribal elder Don Wanatee, a veteran sovereignty advocate with deep roots in the Indian education movement.

Closer to home for Clinton, in New York, Shinnecock Indian Tribe Board of Trustees Chairman Randy King said the federally unrecognized tribe wants her to be more visible on local tribal issues. ''But she's not really addressing New York state tribal issues. She's addressing tribes out West and trying to build coalitions out West.''

Unlike open primaries, where voters enter a booth and decide their party loyalties in secret, caucus voters must register as Democrats or Republicans and vote accordingly for the party candidates. The Iowa caucuses assign no delegates to the party nominating convention in September. The only thing at stake in the first national electoral event is momentum and perception, all of which has tended to play out unpredictably in past races.