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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Amid a presidential field so large you’d need 10 fingers, 10 toes, and an extra hand or foot to count them, two contenders stand out as most improved. Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry are better candidates now than they were in their first tries for national office.

Unfortunately for them, their paths to the Oval Office are much more complicated now than they would have been, in 2008 for Clinton or 2012 for Perry. They squandered their best opportunities in those earlier races, and now have much steeper hills to climb.

Clinton’s challenges are in part a function of timing. It will be harder for a Democrat to win after two terms of a Democratic president than it would have been after two terms of Republican George W. Bush. But her most serious problems are self-inflicted, stemming from her secretive email system as Secretary of State and the intertwining of her work and donations to the Clinton Foundation.

The ethics questions are a clear threat. New Quinnipiac University polling finds Clinton in a perilous position in the crucial general-election swing states of Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia. “She has lost ground in the horserace and on key questions about her honesty and leadership,” assistant poll director Peter Brown said Wednesday in an analysis of the findings.

Clinton is viewed negatively in all three states and her “trustworthy” numbers are even further under water. Not surprisingly, she trails in hypothetical matchups with Republicans Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker in all three states.

The irony for Clinton is that she has hit her stride on the campaign trail.

I was not the only political reporter who foresaw her fade after seeing her grapple with her vote for the Iraq War and listening to her at a major party dinner in 2007 in Des Moines, Iowa. She vowed repeatedly to “fight” and engaged in a cliché call-and-response refrain of “turn up the heat” (as in, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”). Barack Obama, who had opposed the war from the outset, gave a watershed speech at that dinner in which he said the country was at a defining moment and voters would have to decide, “What’s next for America?”

Now, with a nearly unshakable grip on the 2016 nomination, Clinton is talking about people and issues that matter to her — her mother, her granddaughter, voting rights, immigration, race, wages, and inequality. She’s also cracking jokes that are actually funny — many of them about herself, her hair, and her age. “Finally a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine,” she recently said of Donald Trump.

Obviously, the Quinnipiac polls are one set of polls at one moment in time, and even the best-known Republicans have yet to experience the full meat-grinder effect of a national campaign. But it does seem as though Clinton may finally have solved the likability conundrum at a moment when other troubles are catching up with her.

Perry, the former Texas governor, was still in office when he ran in 2012. But he ran in full Tea Party mode as a flamboyant outsider — attacking Washington in a book called Fed Up, flirting with the secession movement, calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and declaring then-Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy “treasonous.” He even defended U.S. Marines who in a video appeared to be urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Teenagers make “stupid mistakes,” Perry said on CNN.

And then of course there was his “oops” moment, when in the midst of a nationally televised debate he could only remember two of the three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate.

This year, Perry is better prepared and has taken on a different role as one of the adults in the room. At the National Press Club, he made strong arguments for why Republicans should go after the minority vote and why his policies in Texas have worked better than liberal policies for people at the lower end of the income scale. He has emphasized his veteran status — he was an Air Force pilot — and has emerged as the most forceful critic of Donald Trump in the GOP field. He was the first to call Trump unfit for the presidency and days ago he called for him to withdraw from the race.

The GOP field, however, is much larger and stronger than it was in 2012 and Perry, 65, is no longer seen as a top-tier candidate. He could still break out in a debate, assuming his polling is strong enough to get him onstage. But it won’t be easy to convince Republican voters he would be a better bet than Bush or the two next-generation hopefuls in their 40s, Rubio and Walker.

Clinton, 67, could still make history as the first female president. But assuming she is the Democratic nominee, she’ll be looking at a battle as tough as the one she lost to Obama in 2008.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: iprimages via Flickr