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The Power of Hillary

By James Carville and Mark J. Penn
Sunday, July 2, 2006

"Hillary Clinton really is one of the weakest . . . nominees with whom the Democrats could be saddled."

"Democrats are worried sick about her chances."

"Just give someone else a chance, so we in the Democratic Party can elect a Democrat."

"She cannot possibly, possibly win."

Yada, yada, yada.

We've heard all this "Hillary can't win stuff" before. In fact, the quotes above aren't from recent weeks but from six years ago, when many pundits -- and Democrats -- said there was no way that Hillary could get elected to the Senate. She won by 12 percentage points.

We don't know if Hillary is going to run for president, but as advisers who have worked on the only two successful Democratic presidential campaigns in the past couple of decades, we know that if she does run, she can win that race, too.

Why? First, because strength matters. Our problems as a party are less ideological than anatomical: Our candidates have been made to look like they have no backbone. But the latest Post-ABC News poll shows that 68 percent of Americans describe Hillary Clinton as a strong leader. That comes after years of her being in the national crossfire. People know that Hillary has strong convictions, even if they don't always agree with her. They also know that she's tough enough to handle the viciousness of a national campaign and the challenges of the presidency itself.

One thing we know about Clinton campaigns: Nobody gets Swift Boated.

The woman who gave the War Room its name knows how tough politics at the presidential level can be. Adversaries spent $60 million against her in 2000, and she endured press scrutiny that would have wilted most candidates. She gave as good as she got, and she triumphed.

For those who think that the politics of personal destruction might be rekindled against Hillary or her husband, we can only remind people how consistently that approach has backfired in the past. Bill Clinton would certainly be a huge asset if Hillary decided to run.

In fact, Hillary is the only nationally known Democrat (other than her husband) who has weathered the Republican assaults and emerged with a favorable rating above 50 percent (54 percent positive in the latest Post-ABC poll).

Yes, she has a 42 percent negative rating, as do other nationally known Democrats. All the nationally un known Democrats would likely wind up with high negative ratings, too, once they'd been through the Republican attack machine.

The difference with Hillary is the intensity of her support.

Pundits and fundraisers and activists may be unsure of whether Hillary can get elected president, but Democratic voters, particularly Democratic women and even independent women, are thrilled with the idea.

The X factor for 2008 -- and we do mean X -- is the power of women in the electorate. Fifty-four percent of voters are female. George Bush increased his vote with only two groups between 2000 and 2004: women and Hispanics. Bush got 49 percent of white female voters in 2000 and 55 percent in 2004. Of his 3.5-percentage-point margin over John Kerry, Bush's increase with women accounted for 2.5 percentage points. The rest came from a nine-point increase among Hispanic voters: from 35 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2004. We believe that Hillary is uniquely capable of getting those swing voters back to the Democratic column.

Hillary's candidacy has the potential to reshape the electoral map for Democrats. Others argue they can add to John Kerry's 20 states and 252 electoral votes by adding Southern states, or Western or Midwestern, depending on their background. Hillary has the potential to mobilize people in every region of the country.

Certainly she could win the states John Kerry did. But with the pathbreaking possibility of this country's first female president, we could see an explosion of women voting -- and voting Democratic. States that were close in the past, from Arkansas to Colorado to Florida to Ohio, could well move to the Democratic column. It takes only one more state to win.

Finally, for those who believe that Hillary's electoral chances are tied to ideology, not leadership qualities, we believe that she is squarely in the mainstream of America. Some people say she is too liberal, some that she is too conservative. We think her 35 years of advocacy for children and families and her tenacious work in the Senate to help ensure our security after Sept. 11 and to help middle-class families will serve her well. We think she represents the kind of change the country is yearning for: a smart, strong leader. She would take the country in a fundamentally different direction: closing deficits, not widening them; expanding health care coverage, not shrinking it. Fighting terrorism without isolating us from the rest of the world.

We don't know whether Hillary will run. But we do know that if she runs, she can win.

James Carville, a Democratic political consultant and commentator, was chief strategist in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Mark J. Penn was a key strategist in Clinton's 1996 bid for re-election and in Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign.

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