2008 presidential campaign unlike any in U.S. history
Sunday, January 21, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton enters the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination with unrivaled political strengths and challenges to match, a former first lady turned senator, soon to be tested in a campaign unlike any other in American history.
While Clinton seeks to become the first woman commander in chief, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is in the early stages of what promises to be the most credible White House campaign ever by a black politician.
One year before the first caucus and primary votes are cast, sheer star power sets them apart from the pack of contenders who will now begin to debate the war in Iraq, health care, federal deficits and more.
"All things considered, she is a little bit more a front-runner than Senator Obama," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster not aligned with any candidate. He put the odds at "better than 50-50 that the nominee will come from that pair."
That is to the chagrin of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, embarking on a bid to become the first Hispanic to preside from the Oval Office. Not to mention the white men in the race -- a group that includes the party's 2004 vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, as well as Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and possibly others to follow.
"Clinton is widely respected among Democratic voters of all stripes for being very smart and someone with important leadership qualities," Garin said.
"Among Democrats the Clinton years are remembered as some of the best times, not just for the party but for the country."
Many of the senior strategists who worked on her husband's two winning campaigns are now on her payroll, and Clinton loyalists around the country await a summons to duty.
Clinton joins the race after six years in the Senate from New York in which she has worked to establish a political identity independent of her husband's.
She took a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and fought for anti-terrorism money for New York City. She tended so well to the concerns of upstate constituents that she carried more than three dozen counties in 2006 that had supported President Bush two years earlier.
But the Clinton years are remembered, even by Democrats, for more than good times, from the endless Republican assaults on the president and his wife to Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. Look carefully at the video posted on her Web site and notice the former president's image in photographs on the table behind her.
Widely viewed by Democrats as the pre-eminent politician of his generation, he is blurry and in the background. He will not stay that way, and one of her challenges will be to bring him into the best possible focus for her candidacy.
Garin referred to another one. "The Clinton campaign needs to recognize that voters have questions about Hillary Clinton and whether she can be a unifying figure."
No candidate chooses to run as a divisive figure, but Obama, in particular, seems intent on casting himself as a fresh new leader.
"Challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most," he said on a video posted to his Web site. "It's the smallness of our politics. ... We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans."
Republicans look at Clinton with something like grudging respect.
"Her strengths are she is very smart, she is very tough and she is very calculating. And I don't think that we should underestimate the appeal she would have to suburban women," said Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican party who is not aligned with any of this year's GOP contenders.
"On the downside, she is very polarizing at a time when polarization is not an appealing trait in candidates in either party. And she doesn't always calculate correctly."
Clinton knows that she has been viewed as a divisive figure and began trying to reshape opinion on Day One. "We all need to be part of the discussion if we're all going to be part of the solution. And all of us have to be part of the solution," she said on a video posted on her new campaign Web site.
Clinton joins the race at a time when the war in Iraq dominates, an issue that Gillespie noted may cause her some difficulty with the anti-war activists who will help pick the Democratic nominee.
As a woman, particularly running in wartime, Clinton bears an especially heavy burden as she tries to establish her qualifications to become commander in chief.
Like many Democrats, she voted to authorize the war in Iraq when the issue came before Congress in 2002. Like others, she grew increasingly critical of the Bush administration as the months passed and the casualties mounted.
But Edwards, for one, made a point of apologizing for his vote, and she has not.
Returning from a recent trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, she sought to strike a balance.
She said the United States should deploy more troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, and announced she will introduce legislation capping the number of troops in Iraq.
"I do not support cutting funding for American troops, but I do support cutting funding for Iraqi forces if the Iraqi government does not meet set conditions," she said.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- David Espo has covered politics for the Associated Press since 1980.