Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

The woman in question needs no introduction, to Democrats or Republicans, such is the shadow she casts over the race for the White House. For all the other candidates of both parties, Hillary Clinton is the focus of attack
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Once upon a time the word did not pass the lips of well-bred Republican ladies. Back in 1984, when asked her opinion of Geraldine Ferraro – Walter Mondale's running mate on the Democratic ticket – Barbara Bush giggled: "I can't possibly say it, but it rhymes with rich." Alas, political discourse in America has, as the pundits like to say, "coarsened" since then. These days, Republican womenfolk have no such inhibitions – which brings me to one of the most entertaining (and illuminating) moments in this ever more fascinating US presidential campaign.

John McCain was holding a meeting on Hilton Head Island, an upscale holiday and retirement resort in South Carolina, full of golf courses and swish hotels, when a middle-aged woman sporting pearl earrings, blonde hair gathered in a pony tail, and all the forthrightness of her caste, brought the house down. "How do we beat the bitch?"

Now McCain's not only a good sport, with probably the best sense of humour of any candidate in either party. He also needs every vote he can get if he's to win the Republican nomination. "An excellent question," he replied with a laugh, before shifting the discussion on to safer terrain. "I respect Mrs Clinton," he said, before noting that an opinion poll had showed him defeating the New York Senator by three points in a head-to-head contest.

For me, the episode spoke volumes. Just who the "bitch" in question was, went without saying: such is the giant shadow cast by Hillary Clinton over the battle for the White House – not just in her own party but in Republican ranks as well, even though the election is still almost a year away. You'd expect the Republican candidates to be going at each other hammer and tongs. Instead they find themselves united, by popular demand, in a rhetorical crusade against Hillary.

The unity bespeaks two things. First, of course, by focusing their fire, they avoid being forced to choose between defending and criticising the all-but-unmentionable President of their own party. Second, it shows the Republicans practically take it for granted that the former first lady will be the Democratic nominee.

In fact – at least until last Thursday – pundits have professed to detect a Hillary wobble. She was the clear front-runner, to be sure, far ahead of her closest rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards. But her advantage, both nationally and in the key early primary state of New Hampshire, was narrowing, while in Iowa, whose caucuses kick off the real contest on 3 January, polls put her in a three-way dead heat with Edwards and Obama.

She gave an uncharacteristically flabby performance in a candidates' debate in Philadelphia, found herself embroiled in an idiotic flap over a missing $100 tip at an Iowa restaurant patronised by her entourage, and then was accused of having her aides plant questions at public meetings. Finally, she was thoroughly upstaged by a fiery, inspirational Obama at an important Democratic dinner in Iowa.

Understandably, the media seized upon these signs of frailty. After all, mudfights, not coronations, sell newspapers, and get talked about on television and the blogs. And with Hillary so far in front, the contest risked becoming downright boring.

On Thursday in Las Vegas, in the last Democratic debate before Iowa, she was even more the centre of attention than she is for the Republican candidates. But this time the damsel came out swinging. We all knew Obama and Edwards would go for her, reckoning it was now or never, and Hillary repaid them in kind. She was, she said, wearing an "asbestos pantsuit". The joke, as so often the candidate herself, came across as calculated and contrived. But the point was made: she would answer fire with fire. Adroitly, she turned the tables on her two rivals, who on separate occasions were actually booed.

If you haven't seen Hillary in action, you can easily dismiss her as a proxy for her husband, a mere instrument for a Bill Clinton restoration. There is a grain of truth in that. Amid the disillusion of the dying Bush era – a near unprecedented 73 per cent of Americans think the US is "on the wrong track" – the Clinton presidency looks like Paradise Lost.

But the more you observe her, the more formidable she becomes. There's the intellect, of course: like her husband, she seems to know the answer to a question before you've finished asking it. She may have served in the Senate for less than seven years, but she's had a ringside seat at the White House for eight. She's not only seen the presidency close up, but thought long and hard about what the job entails.

The brilliance of her campaign is the way in which she both transcends, and yet exploits, the gender issue. There's no doubting her toughness, above all on defence and national security – essential if she is to withstand the certain Republican onslaught in the election campaign, that Democrats can't keep the country safe.

When she holds forth on the evils of the Quds force in Iran, or the difficulties of instant withdrawal from Iraq, the last thing that occurs to you is that it's not a man talking. "People are not attacking me because I'm a woman," she declared in Las Vegas. "People are attacking me because I'm ahead."

But Hillary (and her spouse) do just enough to remind you that she is different. She talks about the "boys' club" of the presidency. When her rivals turn up the heat, Bill is apt to remark that "the six boys" – the other candidates – are ganging up on her. She herself told a debate organised by the biggest US trade union group, if they wanted someone to stand up to the right, then "I'm your girl". It was a coquettish reminder that she was, well, one of the boys.

The issue thus is masterfully blurred. Hillary is both just another candidate – and yet subtly different. The upshot is that her rivals have been unable to find a way of getting after her, without seeming to indulge in very ungentlemanly piling-on.

Of course, the old reservations about her remain. Her public persona is not, and never will be, as likeable as that of her husband. An alarming number of people say they won't vote for her under any circumstances. But when well-bred Republican ladies are calling you the B-word, you must be doing something right.