Political Capital with John Harwood

Hillary Clinton: Which Side Of Her Shows Up In Dems Debate?

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

After a six week lull, Democratic presidential candidates return to the debate stage on Wednesday. And that means the trailing candidate, Hillary Clinton, has a decision to make: whether to be aggressive or more subdued in her approach to front-runner Barack Obama.

She has taken both approaches in past debates, and could justify either one this time.

Since Clinton and Obama last debated in Cleveland on Feb. 26, she has made little progress toward her goal of a come-from-behind victory. She's further behind in the delegate race and has failed to overtake Obama in most national polls, despite a brief national furor over incendiary remarks by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

That leaves some Democrats predicting she’ll begin steering toward a soft-landing for her campaign–-which would earn her goodwill within the party, and might even end with her taking the second spot on Barack Obama’s ticket.

But the new controversy over Obama’s statement about bitterness of some swing voters, and how that influences their attitudes on religion or gun rights, has given Clinton new hope. If she can hit Obama effectively on that issue on Wednesday, Clinton could reach every group she's targeting: voters in Pennsylvania, Indiana and other remaining primary states, uncommitted "super-delegates" with doubts about Obama's electability, and the media.

Clinton's Debate Strategy

There are risks if Clinton appears to go too far in presenting herself as the champion of gun-owners and church-goers. And it’s not yet clear ordinary voters care about Obama’s remarks as much as the news media.

Even her aides aren’t sure which approach she’ll take. As one strategist told me, in this unpredictable campaign the debate is still a lifetime away, and any predictions almost certainly will be wrong.

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