Hillary Clinton tipped as logical choice to pick up the pieces

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York senator and former First Lady, was consistent all year. She wanted John Kerry to win the presidency. But pundits and Democrat insiders begged to differ.

All agreed that a Kerry loss would provide her with her only realistic chance of running for the White House in 2008.

Within seconds of Mr Kerry conceding on Wednesday, the speculation about Mrs Clinton burst to the surface. Her name was instantly on the lips of the network anchors and political pundits were making their assessments of her chances. Most agreed that she seemed an obvious chance, but her obstacles are high.

With the Democrats in disarray, "she is the most logical person to pick up the pieces," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant, who worked on President Clinton's 1996 re-election effort. "She has a national organisation, a national fund-raising base, and she has the former president as her greatest ally."

But she is a highly polarising figure, who may find it hard to win over moderates of both parties and to shed her elitist and liberal image. If the main task of the Democrat party now is to reconnect with blue-collar Middle America, an intellectual woman from New York may not be the most obvious answer.

For herself, Mrs Clinton, 57, is keeping a low profile in the wake of Mr Kerry's defeat. "I am disappointed by the results," she said in a statement from her hope in Chappaqua, New York, where her husband is still recuperating from heart surgery.

"I am determined to work harder than ever in the Senate for the causes important to our future," she added.

She has two more years in the Senate to burnish her image before she is up for re-election in 2006.

To become a viable presidential candidate that will probably mean working harder to sandpaper away the liberal veneer to appear more centrist. In reality, most observers agree, she has already staked positions in the past few years, including on Iraq, that are considerably more centrist than her reputation would suggest.

"She obviously has enormous political will and talent," said Roger Stone, a Republican consultant. "But she will have to find some broad consensus issues that will move her to the centre without alienating her base." That may require her to be hawkish on issues from gay marriage to developing weapons systems. On fiscal matters, her conservative bent is already established. What she probably cannot do is rid herself of the notion that she is now a New Yorker. Only hailing from Massachusetts might be worse.

"I don't see Hillary Clinton being any more popular than Kerry," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

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