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GOP Primary Story Stars a Democratic Antagonist

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

They mock her proposals, utter her name with a sneer and win standing ovations by ridiculing her ideas as un-American, even socialistic. She has become the one thing the Republican candidates for president can agree on.

Hillary Clinton.

Earlier this year, the senator from New York was the subject of an occasional laugh line from former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Now, the trickle has become a torrent as the leading GOP candidates seek to one-up one another in a Clinton-bashing contest aimed at energizing their party faithful.

"The competition inside the GOP for who's the most anti-Hillary is going to pay dividends," said Greg Strimple, a GOP pollster and consultant who is not working with any presidential campaign. "Looking for that piece of anti-Hillary energy is what you're seeing right now."

The attacks have come during the GOP debates, on the stump, in television interviews, and in campaign commercials traditionally reserved for criticism of primary-season rivals.

In an ad unveiled yesterday, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) again criticizes Clinton for seeking $1 million for a Woodstock museum. An ad from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney airing now in New Hampshire slams her for having "not run a corner store" and adds: "She hasn't run a state. . . . She has never run anything."

In the first five GOP debates, stretching from early May to late September, the candidates and the moderators mentioned Clinton's name eight times. During the first October debate, she came up 13 times. And at the Oct. 21 debate, she was the subject of conversation 29 times.

"You know, it's interesting, the most, I guess, wonderful reaction we've had in this entire room is when Hillary's name is mentioned," noted former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee that night. "It gets louder than an Aerosmith concert."

With less than two months until voting begins, the Democratic front-runner has become a target for rivals in her own party as well, prompting her husband, the former president, to accuse them of "Swift boat"-style piling-on during the latest debate.

One moment, Giuliani is sarcastically mocking Clinton for her wavering answer on whether illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses. "First, put up your hands and tell me what you think, and then I'll tell you what I think," he said last week, mimicking Clinton. "I'm for it. I'm against it. I'm for it and against it. And I want to be your president."

At Halloween, Romney found his inner comedian, describing "Hillary's House of Horrors" and joking -- sort of -- that "you go in one room, she wants to raise your taxes. You go in another room and she wants to have government taking over health care."

McCain promised that "the debate that I have between me and her will be based on national security, on fiscal conservatism, and on social conservatism. It will be a respectful debate." But he didn't hesitate to skewer her in his ad blasting the Woodstock earmark.

"It was a cultural event that defined a generation, worthy of fond memories," the announcer says. "But worthy of a million of your tax dollars to build a museum? Hillary Clinton thinks so."

The Republican White House hopefuls appear unmoved by charges that a bunch of men are being nasty to a woman. If anything, Bill Clinton's defense of his wife -- "these boys have been getting tough on her" -- has fired up the Republicans even more.

"You are the leader of the free world. You can't be a victim," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Romney. "You have to be a leader. Voters will be less likely to let her play a victim card."

Antipathy toward Clinton is hardly new for Republicans. During a McCain appearance in South Carolina on Monday, a woman in attendance used an unflattering term to describe Clinton in asking how Republicans could beat her next year. McCain offered to "give the translation" but still made clear he understood whom the questioner was referring to, referencing a poll showing him beating Clinton in a head-to-head matchup. "I respect Senator Clinton," he added.

But the increasingly routine bashing is also about the future as the candidates seek to prove to a depressed and frustrated Republican base that someone -- anyone -- can beat the disciplined, well-financed Hillary Clinton machine if she becomes the Democratic nominee.

"Everyone is trying out their best lines, trying out their best angles of attack, to show they should be the one to carry the Republican banner into battle against her," said Todd Harris, spokesman for former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.).

"The Republicans clearly think Senator Clinton is the Democrat most likely to win the general election, which is why they are so obsessed with her," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign. "They know that if she wins, she'll end the war in Iraq and stop the other failed Bush policies."

Some Democrats worry that her presence at the top of the ticket could be the worst thing for their party, creating an automatic turnout boost for Republicans in some key state and local races. Advisers to former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) note that Republicans are well versed in running anti-Clinton campaigns and argue that the GOP candidate might face a bigger challenge running against one of her rivals.

But Strimple said Republicans should worry that the increasing focus on Clinton is simply an attempt to distract attention from their own flaws.

"The use of Hillary Clinton allows every candidate to overcome the imperfections in their own candidacies," Strimple said.

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