Political Capital with John Harwood

Clinton's Attackers: Giving Her The Fight She Loves?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

John Edwards is attacking Hillary Clinton on health care. He argues that her approach isn't sufficiently confrontational, that she'd be too friendly to the insurance industry and thus couldn't deliver on the priority Democratic primary voters care about most: universal health coverage. This is the sort of attack Hillary Clinton loves.

The Democratic front-runner's biggest problem is that she's a polarizing figure who'd face deeper-than-usual opposition from Republicans and conservatives in a general election. So long as she's not hobbled in Democratic primaries, getting slammed from the left for being too conciliatory can only help with that problem.

Could the Edwards attacks work in the primaries? Possibly, but a new CBS-New York Times poll casts doubt. It shows that Democrats have more confidence in Clinton on handling health care than in either Edwards or Barack Obama. Among Democratic primary voters, 77% say her health care experience will help her while only 15% say it would hurt--a five to one margin.

Nor is one of her principal potential general election opponents in a strong position on this issue. The biggest lightning rod in Clinton's plan is the individual insurance mandate. Critics can attack the mandate as unwarranted government intrusion into the market. Barack Obama decided not to go there. But Mitt Romney--the Republican now leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire--has gone there.

Romney signed a law as governor of Massachusetts that also mandated that individuals have health coverage. As he seeks the Republican nomination, Romney isn't now embracing that as a national prescription; instead, he casts it as one option in a state by state approach consistent with American federalism.

It's a respectable constitutional argument. But Romney's record takes much of the sting out of his attacks on Clinton's plan as "big government" excess.

Questions?  Comments?  Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.