ANALYSIS: Clinton’s troubles can be traced back to New York.

By MICHAEL GORMLEY

The Associated Press

ALBANY — In the classic political novel “The Last Hurrah,” veteran politician Frank Skeffington watched the early returns in a neighborhood he had carried comfortably for decades and saw his undoing. It was “so small as to be almost negligible — yet it stopped him ... it might — just possibly — be dangerous,” the 1956 novel put it.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is facing such moments now in her campaign for president. And those that might just possibly be dangerous for her can be traced back to New York, her adopted state that always figured to be a sure thing.

In October, during a televised debate, the front-running Clinton stumbled when asked if she supported Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s hotly contested plan to make it easier for illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Her non-answer — the first campaign misstep by the seemingly inevitable Democratic nominee — was the hit of talk radio and blogs for days.

Her Democratic opponents pounced at the opportunity to question her candor, integrity and electability. Back then, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said Clinton “really exposed this fault line ... Senator Clinton left us wondering where she stood on every single hard question from Iran to Social Security to driver’s licenses for undocumented workers.”

“That clearly created an opening for her opponents,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena Research Institute poll. “It enabled them to talk about her not being willing to take hard-and-fast positions on difficult issues and it gave her opponents a specific example people could understand.”

Earlier this month, as Obama caught — then passed — Clinton, two Hispanic legislators from New York barely contained their suspicion and anger when Clinton’s campaign manager, a Hispanic woman, stepped down from the flagging campaign. It was a threat to Clinton’s base, which was already losing the black vote to Obama, that had long been a sure thing.

“It will be very troubling to many if somehow we later find that she left her post under pressure because of the recent primary losses” and was “the one to take the blame and resign from her post instead of others involved with your campaign, including former President Clinton, who have caused serious problems and embarrassing situations,” state Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Jr. of the Bronx wrote in a Feb. 11 letter to Clinton.

And this week, numbers inside the Siena Research Institute poll beyond the horse race headlines show more reasons for concern.

While Clinton is viewed more favorably on most issues over Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain by New Yorkers who elected her twice to the U.S. Senate, she loses big for “honesty.” New Yorkers prefer Obama over Clinton 59 percent to 22 percent in the honesty category and favor McCain 53 percent to 31 percent.

“That’s something that should scare her and her team,” Greenberg said.

And after eight years of the Republican Bush administration, a war-weary country facing a possible recession sees far less inspiration in Clinton than in Obama. Siena found 62 percent of New Yorkers were more inspired by Obama compared to 26 percent for Clinton.

Thursday’s New York Post front page carried a smiling photo of Obama looking down at a close-up of a graying Clinton, pensive and a bit wrinkled, under the headline: “Last Roll of the Dice.”

But Clinton has been down before, from early political obituaries written before her Super Tuesday wins, from the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the White House days, and her husband’s loss of the Arkansas governor’s mansion. Her next critical comeback would begin with the Texas and Ohio primaries March 4.

These primary seasons, for both parties, are controlled more by their extreme factions than in general elections in November. And Democrats like to see their party as a big tent. They just tend to kick each other around inside it until they get down to the business of trying to beat a Republican. And that’s the race for which the more centrist Clinton may be best suited.

“There’s nothing in the poll that points me in this direction, but I think anybody who ignores or underrates the political skills of Hillary and Bill Clinton and their team does so at their own peril,” Greenberg said. “They have proven for the last two decades to be incredibly adept and I think, while it’s clear that Obama has momentum and the lead, I think it’s far from over.”

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Michael Gormley is the Albany, N.Y., capitol editor for The Associated Press. He can be reached by e-mail at mgormley(at)ap.org.