Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Senator from New York and former First Lady, yesterday answered months of fevered speculation about her White House ambitions and formally embarked on what will be a historic campaign to become the first woman president of the United States.
The Senator, who only won re-election to a second six-year term as a US Senator last November, shot out of the starting gate with a feisty video-taped statement on her website, making clear her determination to sweep aside any competition in 2008. "I'm in, and I'm in to win," she declared.
Her announcement comes just days after her Democrat colleague in the Senate, political superstar Barack Obama of Illinois, similarly made a widely anticipated first step towards joining the fast-growing field of presidential contenders hoping to become the country's first black commander-in-chief.
The timing is no accident, with Mrs Clinton clearly anxious to seize some of the political wind from Mr Obama's sails and slow his momentum. The sudden surfacing of Senator Obama as a serious candidate - he began hinting at it only late last year - has seriously scrambled calculations in the Clinton camp.
Even though almost two years of George Bush's tenure remain, the 2008 campaign to replace him has already begun. It promises not only to be one of the most thrilling and unpredictable in a generation, it will surely be the most expensive race ever seen.
The prospects for Mrs Clinton are especially intriguing. Early polls identify her as the frontrunner by margins of 15 to 20 points among declared and possible seekers of the Democratic nomination. At the same time, however, she remains a polarising figure in American politics, and as the Democratic nominee would galvanise conservatives for whom another Clinton White House would be beyond intolerable.
But ever since she surprised critics by winning her first run for the US Senate seat in New York in 2000 with ease, few have doubted that she would one day take the presidential plunge. When she won re-election last November by an even greater margin, her trajectory seemed all but certain. And she was defiant yesterday about the certain effort that Republicans would launch to thwart her.
"I have never been afraid to stand up for what I believe in or to face down the Republican machine," she said. "After nearly $70m (£35m) spent against my campaigns in New York and two landslide wins, I can say I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate, and how to beat them."
First, however, she must win the party's nomination in the traditional series of state-by-state caucuses and primary votes early next year. While her most dangerous foe for now appears to be Senator Obama, there are several other Democrat hopefuls, any of whom could emerge as a serious challenger.
Senator Obama, who last week set up an exploratory committee and will declare his candidacy in Chicago on 10 February, yesterday responded in a conciliatory tone to Mrs Clinton, calling her "a good friend and a colleague whom I greatly respect. I welcome her and all the candidates, not as competitors, but as allies in the work of getting our country back on track."
The other Democrat runners, already sucking for oxygen with Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama dominating the room, include, most notably, the former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, who has the advantages of high name recognition and a core camp of supporters left over from 2004.
Facing an even greater struggle to win the attention of voters will be Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico, who today will announce his quest to become the first Hispanic in the White House, and Democrat Senators Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd. On the Republican side, the focus is on Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has yet to declare, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
While Mr Obama is a relatively fresh face, Mrs Clinton arrives with the baggage of her husband's two terms in the White House and her own role as First Lady, including her famously fumbled attempts to forge a universal health care system. As a Senator, however, she has tacked more to the centre. On Iraq, while she voted to authorise the war, she has become increasingly critical of it. A strong advantage for her, meanwhile, will be her proven fundraising talents, harvesting about $50m for her Senate re-election campaign last year.
"It is time to renew the promise of America," she said in her message, adding that she wanted a dialogue with voters on issues such as health care, welfare benefits and the war.
Hillary Rodham Clinton studied political science at Wellesley College, where she was a president of the student Republicans. She then attended Yale Law School, where she met her future husband Bill in the university library. They were married in 1975 after moving to Arkansas.
After Bill became Governor of Arkansas in 1978, she continued practising law, specialising in intellectual property rights and child welfare. Chelsea was born in 1980. The couple were accused of involvement in a property deal that became known as the Whitewater scandal, but no proof of wrongdoing was ever found.
The Loyal Wife
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary defended Bill against claims he had an affair with singer Gennifer Flowers. He later admitted the allegations were true. She was portrayed by Emma Thompson in the film 'Primary Colours' as ambitious, smart but rather prim.
The First Lady
As First Lady, Hillary was appointed in 1993 to head a taskforce on health insurance reform. The ambitious plan for universal healthcare was opposed by Republicans and the medical industry, and was abandoned in 1994. Her credibility took years to recover.
After details of Bill's affair with Monica Lewinsky first emerged, Hillary initially defended her husband, blaming a "vast right-wing conspiracy". His eventual confession to her that the allegations were true were a profound shock, and she later admitted that the affair pushed her marriage to breaking point.
In 2000, Hillary won the New York seat in the Senate for the Democrats, becoming the only First Lady to win elected office in US history. Political enemies accused her of having no links to the city, but Clinton beat Republican Rick Lazio by a large margin.Reuse content