Hillary Clinton's Dilemma: Is Being The Early Front-Runner A Mixed Blessing?

Most experts agree that presidential hopeful would have to make a colossal blunder to take a Howard Dean-like nose dive.

Being the leading presidential candidate is great. You get the most campaign contributions, the most ink and the ability to skip some of those countless rubber-chicken dinners that the other candidates have to sit through.

But you also walk around with a gigantic target on your back ... and you're subject to an endless barrage of vicious attacks aimed at knocking you down from your perch. For most of the (already) seemingly endless 2008 campaign, Senator Hillary Clinton has led the pack in a majority of national polls, both as the Democratic front-runner and, lately, as the overall leader in the race to the White House, even edging out Republican leader Rudy Giuliani in some tallies.

So can we expect the slings and arrows to start coming fast and furious at the former first lady as we finally inch toward the early 2008 primaries? Will she suffer the kind of monumental collapse fellow Democrat Howard Dean experienced in 2004 when an ill-timed rebel yell caused him to cede the Democratic nomination to the bland John Kerry?

According to a number of experts, probably not. "Dean had never done anything at this level before, but Hillary's been in this game for 20 years, and she's been researched more than anyone who's ever run for president," said Dean Strother, a national Democratic media consultant who has worked for a number of campaigns for Democratic senators and governors. "There's nothing left to learn about her at this point because when she was the first lady, there were special prosecutors and Senate hearings on everything."

Though he said she's been in the crosshairs of the Republican National Committee for more than a decade, Strother said it's unlikely that anything shocking from Clinton's past will pop up over the next few months on a par with the "Swift Boat" attack that befell Kerry's campaign. In that case, a group funded by Republicans questioned Kerry's Vietnam War record and, some suggest, helped sink his campaign.

With campaigns by John Edwards and Bill Richardson failing to gain significant ground and Senator Barack Obama still trailing by double-digits, Strother said Clinton can avoid the front-runner curse by doing exactly what she's been doing: playing "prevent" defense. "I don't see her being a front-runner this early being a problem. She's not taking a lot of risks and being very methodical," he said. "Before she says anything, it's very well planned out, and she's not coming with anything provocative. She's just trying to run out the clock, and I think it will work for her."

Continuing the sports metaphor, another reason Clinton probably doesn't have to sweat being in the lead this early is because of her all-star team. According to Jordan Lieberman, publisher of Campaigns & Elections magazine, Clinton has amassed "one of the most talented group of advisers put together under one roof in recent memory." If anything, Clinton might be in danger of overexposure or being tagged with the perception of being bland because of the longer-than-usual campaign cycle for this election and her meticulous avoidance of doing anything controversial.

So far, Lieberman said, she's made almost no mistakes on the campaign trail, save for an ill-received proposal for a $5,000 savings bond for every child born in the U.S. to be used for college or a home. That proposal, floated at a debate in late September, was dropped from a plan Clinton proposed on Tuesday to offer universal 401(k) programs for middle-class workers.

"Can she blow it? Sure," Lieberman said. "But she's not likely to."

Julius Caesar "J.C." Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and frequent CNN political contributor, said Clinton might be the front-runner, but that doesn't mean it's a lock. "You've got 19 to 20 candidates on the Republican and Democrat sides, and they're all going to be shooting for her," Watts said. "She's got a tough challenge, because she's only got about 40 percent of Democrats who think she's #1, so when you consider the polls, you still have six out of 10 Democrats who say she's not their choice."

The fact that Clinton has been probed extensively in the past isn't necessarily an advantage from Watts' perspective, either, and it could be a disadvantage if people feel like they know too much about her past. "In my opinion, in order for her not to get the nomination, she will have to make some mental error or mishap that makes her lose her standing," he said. "But if I were a betting man, I would bet on her not doing that. That's where it helps to have been probed and gone through the political fire the way she has."

Jin Chon, a spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, told MTV News that while the campaign is well aware of the dangers of getting too comfortable in the lead position, they're confident that voters will be won over by Clinton once they've heard the senator's plans.

"There's still lots of time between now and the first vote in this nominating process," Chon wrote in an e-mail. "Hillary Clinton is not taking anything for granted and is working hard to win the support of voters. We have big challenges in front of us as a nation, and the American people know that they are looking for a candidate who has the strength and experience to lead at this time. Once they have a chance to see and hear from Hillary Clinton, they know she is the candidate to lead on day one."