Out of America Special: Can Hilary win the White House

As the Democrats celebrate regaining control of the House and Senate in last week's midterm elections, the omens are looking good for the former first lady. But it's far from sewn up: the 2008 presidential contest looks like being the most open in living memory
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You may not believe it, given the fury of speculation, but as of today, only two people have actually declared their intention to run for President of the United States.

They are worthy souls both. And do not feel insulted by the fact that, probably, you have never heard of either of them. One - Duncan Hunter, outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee - wisely did not await the midterm rout of his Republican party to throw his hat into the ring. The other official contender is Tom Vilsack, the Democratic Governor of Iowa, who, almost as the Democrats completed their triumph by sealing control of the Senate on Thursday, announced that he too was forming an exploratory committee, the traditional first step in any campaign for the White House.

But they will not be alone for long. The presidential race of 2008 is arguably the most open in living memory. Not only is there no incumbent seeking re-election. For the first time since 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson, a sitting Vice-President is not attempting to replace his boss - which, given the stupendous unpopularity of Dick Cheney, is just as well. The country is in a volatile, disgruntled mood. The crisis in Iraq, the gathering confrontation with Iran or a new terrorist attack could transform the political landscape at a stroke.

In reality the race started the second the last polling booth in Hawaii closed on Tuesday evening. Within weeks, maybe days, others will declare. Such is the need to raise money - the price of an entry ticket for a serious White House bid is at least $30m (£15.7m ) - that a campaign must be up and running at least six months before a vote is cast in earnest in Iowa and New Hampshire in January 2008.

This time around, when early primaries have been set for the west and the south, the organisational (that is, financial) pressures will be even greater. Yet so, too, will be the opportunity. A rank outsider whose campaign suddenly takes off can survive, despite the prohibitive cost of running, thanks to the fund-raising power of the internet.

Right now, 2008 is set up splendidly for the Democrats. By then the country will have endured eight years of an increasingly disastrous President, who dragged his country into an unnecessary and detested war. Temporarily at least, the conservative ideology that has driven his party is exhausted. As the midterms showed, America wants change. The Democrats did not win the battle for Congress; the long-ruling Republicans lost it.

As masters of both Senate and House for the first time in 12 years, the former have their best chance to advertise their ideas since Bill Clinton left office in January 2001.

Last but not least, in these midterms, Democrats have passed one political milestone after another: the first female Speaker of the House in Nancy Pelosi, the first Muslim congressman (Minnesota's Keith Ellison), and just the second black state Governor, in the person of Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. So to cut to the quick of the campaign that now looms: why not the first female President? Albeit undeclared, Hillary Clinton dominates the potential Democratic field.

According to a CNN poll last week, she was the choice of 28 per cent of Democratic supporters - a figure that would have been even higher but for the sudden emergence of a certain Barack Obama as a potential candidate.

Mr Obama was favoured by 17 per cent, followed by Al Gore and John Edwards with 13 per cent apiece, and John Kerry, loser in 2004, with 12 per cent. The brave Mr Vilsack gets just 1 per cent.

But each of them has drawbacks. Mrs Clinton benefits from huge name recognition and a top-class organisation. She has some $20m left over from her walkover re-election campaign for her New York Senate seat. Long portrayed as the Madame Mao of US politics, she has spent her first six-year term assiduously rebranding herself as a centrist.

She has not played to the cameras on Capitol Hill, and has even made friends across the aisle with some who led the attempt to impeach her husband. And, of course, she happens to be married to the most gifted natural politician the US has produced in half a century.

But does this guarantee a Clinton restoration? By no means. Her prolonged support for the war has hurt Hillary in her natural liberal constituency. And for all her efforts, she remains a deeply polarising figure. Bill's role in a Hillary presidency is unclear. Many fear that she can win the primaries, but not the general election against a Republican with strong appeal to independents, such as John McCain. A few believe she may yet not run at all.

The former vice-president Al Gore, loser in 2000, has similar name recognition, and his long opposition to the Iraq war and embrace of green causes has boosted his popularity, especially on the left.

The problem is, he has virtually ruled out a 2008 bid. And were he to enter the race, 2000 proved one thing above all, that Mr Gore is a dreadful campaigner. There is scant doubt, however, about Mr Edwards. The 2004 vice-presidential nominee has spent an inordinate amount of time in the key, early primary state of Iowa. Both he and his wife Elizabeth have written syrupy memoirs, a sure sign of a campaign to come. He is young, able and attractive, but still comes across as something of a lightweight. Even so, he has a better chance than the other half of the 2004 ticket. Mr Kerry wants desperately to run again. The sense is, however, that he had his chance two years ago and blew it.

The wild card, of course, is Mr Obama - first discussed many months ago in this space. Yes, he is only 45, with only two years' service in the Senate, and his policies hardly extend beyond platitudes. Yet his recent and riotously successful national book tour, promoting a vacuously titled work, The Audacity of Hope, has been as clear a portent of a possible White House bid as was Colin Powell's similar venture to promote his autobiography in 1995. In the event, Mr Powell funked it. Senator Obama, increasingly obviously, will not. Wait until you are more experienced, they say. But the number one rule for presidential aspirants is, if opportunity beckons, go for it. Eight or 10 years down the line, the chance will probably have vanished.

And never, surely, has the climate been more propitious for an outsider. Polls show that if barely a third of Americans approve of Mr Bush, only a quarter have a kind word for Congress. Remember Ross Perot, the Texan billionaire with the squeaky voice? He entered the 1992 race late, withdrew that summer, and then re-entered the contest, muttering darkly of plots against his family. By then half the country considered him insane. Yet Mr Perot won 19 per cent of the vote. What might an Obama do in a year of similar discontent?

The discontent obviously militates against any Republican contender, as does America's shifting ideological slant. The country may be still moderately conservative, but the tide is moving away from the harsh conservatism personified by this administration. But the vote for President is the most personal an American casts. This, after all, is the individual whose face will be on TV in your living room at times of crisis, announcing triumph or disaster, war or peace.

Hence rule number two for aspiring presidents: you've got to be likeable. Reagan was more affable than Carter, George Bush senior came across as more fun than the uptight Michael Dukakis, and who could be more charming than Bill Clinton? As for George W Bush, think of him what you may: in 2000, he won the "would-you-like-to-have-a-beer-with-him" test hands down over Mr Gore.

This is one reason why John McCain is the presumed front runner among Republicans, though he too has yet to declare. People like him - not least the independent voters who flocked to the Democrats last week. He has courted the Christian conservatives who denied him the nomination in 2000. He is a hugely effective fundraiser, and has a strong team in place, including top strategists from the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

Mr Bush's may be the finger on the nuclear trigger. But the most powerful Republican in the land in political terms right now is Mr McCain. The doubts, however, are two-fold. Will the US really warm to a candidate who wants to send yet more troops to Iraq? And is he healthy enough? If elected, Mr McCain, at 72, would be the oldest man ever to win the White House. He also has a history of melanoma.

For that reason, some look elsewhere. Mitt Romney, the outgoing governor of Massachusetts, a Republican with proven appeal in a Democratic state, is showing every sign of planning a bid. Defeat in the razor-tight Virginia Senate battle last week ended George Allen's hopes. But other Senators, notably Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, may take the plunge - and what about Rudolph Giuliani, or even billionaire Michael Bloomberg, Mr Giuliani's highly successful successor as Mayor of New York? He certainly won't lack funds. There is also Duncan Hunter, of course. And why not? In 2008, anything is possible.