MINDS MADE UP….In recent American political history, we’ve seen exactly one instance of a national figure successfully pulling off an image transformation. That was Richard Nixon, between 1960 (possibly, 1964) and 1968, when he won the presidency. He did it in large part by dropping out of the public eye for a number of years.

Yes, other politicians have managed to change people’s assumptions about them, but none of them started out with such a prominent and established national profile. If Hillary Clinton is going to accomplish this feat, she’ll have to do it in full view. And that’s a tough task.

It’s political gospel that a candidate’s chances of success turn on their ability to control how they are presented to the public. That’s hard enough when large numbers of voters are undecided ? just one month before the 2004 primaries and less than a year before the election, 66 percent of voters didn’t know what they thought of John Kerry. Compare that to Clinton: Only seven percent of voters say they don’t have an opinion about her. Kevin says, just wait until those TV viewers get their first look at her in nearly a decade…they just might like her.

First of all, I find it hard to believe that Hillary Clinton has dropped off of people’s radar screens and they’ll think they’re getting a “fresh look” at here in 2008. But more importantly, how many times did we hear that last year about Kerry? He performed admirably well in the debates, gave what was at the time (even if many liberals are now retroactively revising their assessments) hailed as a successful acceptance speech, and yet his public image was crafted by none of these things so much as by conservative attacks, ads, and talking points.

As I make clear in the article, I’m a Hillary fan, and I think the party would do well to listen to her strategic advice and to put her out front on issues from immigration to abortion to foreign policy. But it’s very possible that somewhere out there is a stronger nominee, someone who can combine the politically viable centrism and appeal of Clinton without the attendant vulnerabilities. If Democrats close ranks around her this soon in the 2008 cycle, however, that candidate will never get the chance to emerge.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.