Hillary Clinton is emerging, among Democrats and political observers, as the favourite to be the candidate for the 2008 presidential race.
Until recently, Senator Clinton had maintained a fairly low profile in Washington but she is now being identified as the most likely opponent to the Republican challenger.
For her own part, Mrs Clinton, who made history as the only former first lady to serve in the Congress, has stayed coy on the subject. In an interview in yesterday's Washington Post she said only that she "has no plans" to compete in the 2008 election. As for next year, she has repeatedly ruled out joining the race, even as a vice-presidential running mate, while vowing to complete her six-year Senate term.
But speculation on her presidential potential has resurfaced suddenly. Recent polls show strong support for her among Democrat voters. Also, she has quietly achieved a degree of leadership status inside the Senate that is very rare for a first-term member.
Mrs Clinton, who won her Senate contest in New York in 2000, is also drawing attention because of her part in founding a Democrat think-tank that wants to counter the output of such conservative think-tanks as the Heritage Foundation. It will be launched this spring.
A survey by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut last month showed 42 per cent of Democrat voters favouring Senator Clinton were she to enter the fray in the 2004 election. That put her way ahead of the second favourite, Senator Joe Lieberman, with 15 per cent. Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac poll, said: "Clearly, she is thinking about 2008. She's making friends and raising money and, boy, is she in good shape. Already, she is, without question among Democrats, the leading figure. In our polls sometimes she beats all the others combined."
Most observers worry, however, that Mrs Clinton, who has been manoeuvring to portray herself as a centrist, remains a highly polarising figure. While she may have won the affection of many New Yorkers, in more conservative corners of the country she attracts emotions verging on outright hatred.
"She's intensely liked and she's intensely disliked," Senator John Breaux of Louisiana suggested to the Post. The Clinton name alone carries significant baggage as it reminds voters of the scandals of her husband's presidency. If she is indeed waiting until 2008 to make a run at the White House, she may be calculating that some of those negative memories will have started to fade.
Mrs Clinton may also suffer from the debacle of the failed universal healthcare plan she forged at the start of her husband's first term. But Senator Breaux is among those in the Senate already publicly suggesting that 2008 could be her year. "I think she's very well positioned to be a candidate next time around," he commented.
Positions recently assigned to her include the chairmanship of the Democratic Steering Committee responsible for galvanising the party's base and promoting its policy agenda. "I am trying to broaden the base of people we have reached out to in the past," Mrs Clinton said. She also has a seat on the Armed Services Committee, which will give her international policy credentials.
All this has happened while the senator has portrayed herself as a new member intent on learning the rules of the Senate and focusing on the issues of her state. "It took a while for some to really understand her brilliance," said Senator Harry Reid, the Minority Whip. "But we had to find a place for her – she is that good."
And, as Mrs Clinton strives to shed her liberal image, she recently spoke in support of President Bush's plan to punish Iraq for its failure to disarm – an unexpectedly hard line that has infuriated many of her Democrat colleagues.
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