- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

I don’t know whether Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a good president or not, although the question doesn’t trouble me much.

After all, her husband and his successor offer two excellent examples of how quickly long-shot amateurs can get the hang of the job, once they have it.

But I roll my eyes in disbelief that some people scoff at the possibility of a Hillary candidacy, let alone a Hillary presidency. She has surprised her doubters and naysayers before and she is quite capable of doing it again.

As far as the nomination of her party is concerned, she’s the brightest star on a rather dim horizon at this early stage of the game.

First, don’t be fooled by the many conservative voices spewing against her from certain newspaper columns, radio chatter shows and cable TV news outlets as though she were a witch from hell. In contrast to that cacophony of conservative rage, polls show the true silent majority to be more evenhanded.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll at the beginning of June found Americans to be split evenly: 43 percent held a favorable opinion of her, and 43 percent unfavorable.

By contrast, other Democratic contenders need to put their faces on the sides of milk cartons, for all the public recognition they’ve generated. Two-thirds of the public could not name a single one of the nine current Democratic presidential candidates in a May CBS/New York Times poll.

The biggest name in the bunch was Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who still benefits from running with Al Gore in 2000.

No, before I judge a candidate, I look first at who does not want me to vote for them. Don’t be fooled by the orgy of fury that conservative commentators have churned up against Hillary Clinton’s re-emergence into the public spotlight. If she didn’t have a chance to win, one should ask, why are so many people so fired up against her?

“Stop Hillary now,” countered a recent fund-raising letter from Virginia Sen. George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We all know she covets the presidency and is only using her time in the U.S. Senate as a steppingstone. … We can’t let her set the national agenda and go unimpeded in her race to get back to the White House,” Mr. Allen states.

As her book tour gets under way, so will efforts by Mr. Allen’s office to use her new high profile as a fund-rising mechanism for Republicans.

Yes, anyone who talks about her $8 million advance for her new book also needs to talk about the bigger money that people, whether for her or against her, are raising because of her.

She knows the value of her own notoriety on the political Right. She’s a star draw for Democrats who need a big name to sell tables at fund-raisers. Her political action committee, HILLPAC, has raised a reported $3.2 million over the past two years. She has given $1 million of it to Democrats across the country, according to an analysis by the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. Significantly, the recipients included candidates in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In short, she is a lightning rod, generating passion on both sides. This political season seems curiously devoid of passion among the announced Democratic candidates, except for long shots like the Rev. Al Sharpton or Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio who enflame the party’s base but have the least chance of crossing over to the real battleground in the mainstream middle that each party needs to win the White House.

Hillary Clinton has a solid base in her favor, as well as against her. That leaves the folks in the middle for her to win over in the patient, deliberate way that she won votes in New York State, county-by-county, learning the public’s issues at the grass roots and using them against her overconfident Republican opponent, then-Rep. Rick Lazio.

Now detractors groan she has a new book in which she recounts a tantalizing version of her agonies during the Monica Lewinsky affair. It offers gripping emotion (“I could hardly breathe.” ” … I wanted to wring Bill’s neck … ,”) without telling us anything new of substance.

But, if she runs in 2008, as many of her close friends and supporters expect, especially if President Bush is re-elected in 2004, the book puts the Lewinsky story out in the public eye early and lets her deal with it now, so she later can dismiss any further questions as old news.

By then, Democrats might be hungry enough, as they were in 1992 after 12 years in the political wilderness, to rally around the largest figure on the Democratic horizon. Hillary Clinton very well might be it.

As President Bush might say, don’t “misunderestimate” her.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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