WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun building a national political organization, softening her liberal image and taking a lead role in Democratic criticism of President Bush -- steps toward a potential campaign to become the first woman president.
Former President Clinton speaks about his wife's run for the presidency as a matter of "when," not "if," say people who have discussed it with him. Several of her associates said she is eyeing 2008 as the year to run.
Sen. Clinton said Friday that she will not break a pledge to complete her six-year term that expires in 2006.
"I have no plans to run for president," she said.
Her actions suggest the former first lady is positioning herself for a history-making race. She has:
Contributed nearly $600,000 to 73 Democratic candidates across the country through her political action committee and has raised even more money by headlining fund-raisers. She has helped candidates in key presidential states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Defended her husband's presidency against attacks from Republicans while sharpening her criticism of Bush.
Courted the party's moderate wing with a keynote speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. She has sided with Republicans or centrist Democrats on bankruptcy, welfare and anti-Hollywood legislation.
"It used to be that Democrats came to Washington hoping to work for Ted Kennedy," said Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager. "Now they want to earn their stripes with Hillary."
Clinton has miles to go to override criticism by Republicans that she is a liberal Democrat whose major policy initiative -- the 1993 universal health care plan -- was a political and policy disaster.
"I think it's always hard for somebody with a full record and a range of interests to be portrayed ... in soundbites," Clinton said. "I was the first person in the country to call for teaching testing" as first lady of Arkansas "and I took enormous heat for that. I supported welfare reform in the Clinton administration and I took enormous heat for that."
Ruled out 2004 race
Several advisers and friends close to Clinton, speaking on condition of anonymity, say she wants a Democrat to win the White House in 2004. If Bush wins re-election, however, she would almost certainly be a candidate four years later, they said.
The sources include a longtime adviser, a close friend and a senior Democrat who have talked to Clinton about her future.
"I don't know who those people are or where they're getting their information from because they've never had a conversation with me they can quote," Clinton said. She flatly ruled out even a vice presidential bid in 2004.
It is impossible to characterize Sen. Clinton's prospects with any certainty; the sources close to her could be trying inflate her standing among Democrats or may be caught up in the Clinton-for-president speculation buzzing about the party's base.