'Hillary Can Be Beat'

Iowa Democrats want a contested race—and they likely will get one.

DES MOINES, IOWA—Conventional wisdom says Hillary Clinton can't be beat here. But there's nothing conventional about Iowa's caucuses, nothing predictable about the state's persnickety Democrats—nearly 200 of them jammed into an Irish bar one night this week to hear from little-known Clinton rival Martin O'Malley.

They heard him, alright. They heard him deliver his fledgling stump speech and perform a populist anthem, "Scare Away the Dark." Perched atop the makeshift stage—a stack of beer boxes—the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor strapped on his guitar and sang:

We wish our weekdays away

Spend our weekends in bed

Drink ourselves stupid

And work ourselves dead

And all just because that's what mom and dad said we should do.

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When he got to the chorus, O'Malley churned his buttery voice into a growl. "Feel," he sang, "feel like you still have a choice!" The crowd cheered. A gaggle of young men squeezed between a popcorn machine and beer kegs exchanged knowing glances. One of them muttered, "Hear that, Hillary?"

Iowa Democrats want to feel like they have a choice. In nearly three dozen interviews, top party activists and dedicated caucus-goers spoke almost unanimously about their desire for a contested 10-month campaign, a spirited debate over how to move the country further left to address income inequality, wage stagnation, and other liberal causes. Just as important, they don't want to be taken for granted. They don't want Clinton to forget the lessons of 2008, when her haughty, top-heavy campaign rankled Iowa Democrats, who then punished her with a third-place shaming.

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They want a contest, not a coronation.

"I don't know too many people who are solidly for Hillary," said Bob Ward, 32, a clerk from Des Moines who attended the O'Malley event to learn about his alternatives. "Iowans tend to keep an open mind," he said. "I know I do."

Standing nearby, Emily Holley, 30, said O'Malley could win Iowa "if he puts on the same moves as (Barack) Obama did in 2007 and 2008. No gathering was too small. He was in coffee shops and living rooms and places like this—and that's why he won and Hillary lost. She didn't do that."

I heard the same warning after I left the bar and talked to Democratic Party insiders: Clinton campaigned like an entitled incumbent, favoring large rallies over the intimate and demanding conversations that Iowans expect. Most doubt her ability to change.

"I don't know if you can teach her to be a nice person, to teach her to be open," said Mike Glover, an iconic Iowa journalist who retired from The Associated Press in 2012 and now writes for an Iowa Democratic website.

"I think there will be a real challenge to Hillary," Glover said. It could come from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, but Glover said O'Malley is the most likely insurgent. "I think he can win."

Jeff Link, one of Iowa's foremost Democratic strategists, said party activists are still morose over the 2014 elections, and need a jolt of enthusiasm that can only come from a hard-fought presidential caucus. "There is a genuine longing for a contest," he said. "Everywhere I go, people say they want Hillary tested."

That bias and the scars from 2008 make her vulnerable. "Hillary can be beat here," Link said.

Nobody, certainly not Link or Glover, are predicting a Clinton defeat in Iowa. Even the most skeptical Democratic insider I could find, a prominent union organizer from central Iowa, put Clinton's odds of winning "just north of 50-50." The most bullish said she had a 90 percent chance of taking Iowa.

If there is a consensus, it's this: Clinton's only sure defense against another Iowa surprise is a campaign that is scrappy, inclusive, optimistic, and humble. Those are not adjectives frequently associated with her. And yet, that is exactly what the Clinton team has promised to deliver.

Iowa Democrats have been told to expect small campaign events in which Clinton can engage with voters. They've pledged use Clinton's celebrity to spotlight rising Iowa Democratic politicians. She will support local issues important to state Democrats, even when doing so might seem small or parochial for a presidential candidate. The point is to show Iowa Democrats that Clinton considers her race to be about people (and causes) bigger than herself.

Of course, there are doubters. Rather than confront and alienate them (as the Clinton campaign did in 2008), her new advisers are more likely to embrace her skeptics. The man running her caucus operation is Matt Paul, a highly respected Iowan who is asking Democrats to give his boss a second chance. A typical strategic briefing ends with Paul telling party leaders, "We know we need to prove it."

O'Malley needs to prove he's ready to challenge Clinton. Like insurgents Howard Dean (Democrat, 2004) and Rick Santorum (Republican, 2012), O'Malley's strategy is to visit each of the state's 99 counties and hope the frontrunner gets lazy or makes a big mistake.

Like Dean, he is running hard to the left of the favorite. O'Malley is casting himself as a data-driven mayor and governor with a record of liberal accomplishments, including same-sex marriage, a higher minimum wage, in-state tuition and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, and an end to the death penalty. A get-it-done populist.

Where Dean channeled opposition to the Iraq War, O'Malley wants to ride the rage against Wall Street "“ an issue that could cut hard against Clinton and her husband who have a long history of playing footsie with donors from the financial sector. "Both parties are too beholden to Wall Street," O'Malley told me.

To the frustration of many Iowa Democrats, he has not taken the verbal club to Clinton. Two party leaders mischievously suggested that I ask O'Malley if he'd would forsake campaign donations from Wall Street and challenge Clinton to do the same—a mostly symbolic move for O'Malley (he's not getting much Wall Street money anyhow) that would tie Clinton in political knots.

So I asked. O'Malley responded with a long pause and a blank stare. Then he gave a long rambling answer that I took as a no. He won't rage against Wall Street donations.

That's not his first missed opportunity. The former governor has been slow to court the large bloc of Democrats who habitually vote against the establishment candidate—at least one-fifth of all caucus-goers. "O'Malley did some smart stuff in 2014, but he hasn't really bull-rushed the race since then," Link said. "Had he made a bold step in December or January, he could have picked up a lot of the anti-establishment vote and be building from there already."

One wonders how far O'Malley is willing to go to defeat Clinton. But the real question is how far Clinton can go to change. Can she be scrappy, warm, or humble? Can the woman who, as Secretary of State, hid and destroyed her emails be less paranoid and more transparent? That's asking a lot.

Even her advisers privately harbor doubts while spinning a new narrative.

Voters are starting to question her credibility.

While Clinton holds a huge lead over her Democratic rivals nationally, one survey suggests that nearly three-quarters of Democrats and independents believe it would be a good thing for the party if she were to face a serious challenge.

And so Iowa Democrats wonder whether it's their responsibility to stop Clinton, or their duty to crown her.

They wish the choices were better. They wish Clinton wasn't flawed. They want something more ...

Meanwhile, the frontman for the Celtic group O'Malley's March, the former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, stands atop beer boxes and sings "Scare Away the Dark" by the British folk rock band Passenger.

Well, we wish we were happier, thinner, and fitter,

We wish we weren't losers and liars and quitters

We want something more not just nasty and bitter.

We want something real, not just hash tags and Twitter.