By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007
New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday launched a long-anticipated 2008 presidential campaign that could make her the first female president in the nation's history and the only former first lady to follow her husband in the White House.
"I'm in and I'm in to win," Clinton said on her campaign Web site early in the morning, and then spent the day at her Washington home making calls to supporters, donors and friends. Her announcement was deliberately timed to come shortly before President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, campaign advisers said, so she can draw a contrast with the administration's record and help focus attention on the office of the presidency.
Their hope, they said, is to establish Clinton as the candidate best prepared to become the first Democrat in the White House since Bush succeeded Bill Clinton six years ago.
"The stakes will be high when America chooses a new president in 2008," she said in a statement that was posted on her Web site along with a video announcement. "As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush's mistakes and restore our hope and optimism."
Clinton begins the long campaign as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, according to a nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll completed Friday night. The poll showed her the favorite of 41 percent of Democrats, giving her more than double the support of any of her potential rivals.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who established his exploratory committee last week, has generated enormous interest and attention, putting the Clinton camp on notice. The poll put him in second place among Democrats at 17 percent, but his support has not increased over the past month as he has moved toward a formal candidacy.
In hypothetical general election matchups against the two most prominent prospective GOP candidates, Clinton narrowly leads Arizona Sen. John McCain and is running about even with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
In her video statement, Clinton made only a glancing reference to the war in Iraq. She has emerged as a vocal critic of the president and opposes his proposal to send more than 20,000 additional troops into the conflict. But she voted for the war in 2002 and angered some party antiwar activists by standing behind that vote until last month.
Regardless, Clinton brings considerable assets to the race.
As a former first lady now serving her second term in the Senate, she has one of the best-known names in American politics. She has a national network of supporters, the capacity to raise as much or more money than any of her rivals, and a résumé of political activity dating back decades that now includes six years in the Senate and a landslide reelection victory in November.
And for the past 15 years, she has shown an ability to weather sometimes harsh attacks from her critics, especially among conservatives.
But those considerable assets have done nothing to ward off a sizable cadre of rivals. That group includes, in addition to Obama, former North Carolina senator John Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, all of whom have established campaign committees.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson plans to declare his intentions today and Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he will be a candidate. The field also includes Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich. On the sidelines are Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 nominee, who is considering becoming a candidate, and former vice president Al Gore, the 2000 nominee, who has said he is not likely to run again.
The size and experience of the Democratic field underscores the reality that, for all of her support, fundraising potential and political muscle, Clinton continues to face questions about whether she can win a general election.
The electability issue comes in different forms. Will she suffer from a sense of Clinton fatigue on the part of many voters, who may be looking for the kind of fresh face Obama offers? Is she too defined as a partisan Democrat to fit the mood of an electorate that may be hungry for a different style of politics after eight years of the Clinton presidency and six years of Bush? Have the attacks against her as a cold and calculating politician created an image that, correct or incorrect, will be difficult to overcome?
Wasting no time to confront the issue, Clinton's campaign posted on its Web site a 1,250-word memo from strategist and pollster Mark Penn that begins: "People are always asking, can Hillary Clinton win the presidency? Of course she can."
"The number one asset we have is Hillary Clinton, her strength and leadership," Penn said in an interview. "As more and more people get to know her -- as they know her in New York -- they will like the leadership and the experience she represents."
But many Democrats say she will have to work to overcome skepticism about her candidacy inside the party. "Can they [voters] finally see the reality of Hillary Clinton, not the myth of Hillary Clinton?" said Mickey Kantor, who was commerce secretary in the Clinton administration and supports the senator's candidacy. "The money will be there. . . . The experienced people will be there. All those things she will have. But the image [is something] she will have to turn around in some parts of the country."
Clinton loyalists describe her as the least-known famous person in politics, by which they mean they do not believe people know the real Hillary Clinton. They hope to use town hall meetings, living-room coffees and interactive Internet conversations to reintroduce her to voters. On her Web site yesterday, Clinton emphasized her Midwestern middle-class roots and her cooperation with Republicans in the Senate.
All that may help to personalize her, but her advisers say the most effective way of overcoming questions about her electability is to focus voters' attention on what it takes to be president -- strength, intelligence, discipline and toughness -- all of which they say she already exhibits.
"At the end of the day, people are going to make a decision about who would be the best president, and that's the person they're going to vote for," campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said.
Campaign officials also believe that Clinton's potential for making history as the nation's first female president will give the campaign added energy, a talking point emphasized in a memo sent to supporters yesterday. "In particular, younger generation women believe it's time we had our first woman president and believe Hillary is the right choice," the memo states.
The Post-ABC News poll demonstrates that she remains the candidate to beat for the nomination. Clinton led the Democratic field with 41 percent, followed by Obama with 17 percent, Edwards with 11 percent and Gore with 10 percent.
She had significantly greater support among women (49 percent) than men (30 percent) and drew about the same support from liberals (38 percent) as moderates (37 percent). Her strongest support came among nonwhite Democrats, 56 percent of whom backed her, despite the presence of Obama, who is the son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother.
In general election tests, she led McCain 50 to 45 percent and was roughly even with Giuliani, with 49 percent to his 47.
More than half the respondents, 54 percent, gave Clinton a favorable rating, while 44 percent viewed her unfavorably. Giuliani, at 61 percent, had a higher rating, but McCain and Obama were both somewhat lower -- 49 and 45 percent, respectively. A quarter of those surveyed had no opinion about Obama and 16 percent had no opinion about McCain.
Sixty-one percent of Americans gave her husband, former president Bill Clinton, a favorable rating.
The poll also suggested that the New York senator may be less damaged by her position on the war than some analysts have suggested. Among Democrats who say the war is the most important issue facing the country -- the overwhelming percentage of whom oppose the war -- Clinton's favorable rating is 76 percent, almost identical among all Democrats, and she wins the support of 43 percent of that group, compared with 18 percent for Obama.
Clinton has more potentially serious problems in some of the early states where the nomination fight will begin. She trails either Edwards or Obama in recent polls in Iowa and has a much more fragile lead (or, in at least one case, is in second place) in New Hampshire. That is one reason campaign advisers want to get her to Iowa and New Hampshire as quickly as possible.
She will appear publicly in New York this afternoon, and will answer questions from voters during live online chats Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Her first trip to Iowa, whose caucuses will kick off the nomination contest, will come next weekend.
Polling Director Jon Cohen and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.