Thursday, September 18, 2003

Will she or won’t she?

Bill Clinton tantalized a Democratic audience in California Tuesday night with a suggestion that his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she won’t run for president next year, might change her mind after all.

This set off a new round of Hillary chatter yesterday among Democrats who say the current field has not yielded a breakaway candidate.

“That’s really a decision for her to make,” Mr. Clinton told a forum in Monterey, Calif., as quoted in the Salinas Californian, which suggested that the former president was only trying to turn the question aside.

However, Mr. Clinton further said his wife has been urged by her New York constituents to run for president next year.

The new Hillary buzz followed the news that several of Mr. Clinton’s campaign and presidential aides are lining up behind retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s new bid for the Democratic nomination, together with published speculation that Mr. Clark would be Mrs. Clinton’s choice for a running mate.

Mrs. Clinton, a Democrat serving her first term as senator, has said she will serve the full term and consistently rejected the notion that she’s planning a run next year. Late last month, she made her most definitive statement: “I am absolutely ruling it out.”

Some analysts say Mrs. Clinton doesn’t need a surrogate to keep a place for her. Says Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine: “If she got in, she would be by far the front-runner, and she doesn’t have to have someone stalk for her.”

Several things must happen, in this view, for Mrs. Clinton to join the race. Black leaders and labor union officials, who have been prominent in backing her in New York, would have to ask her to run, and several candidates already in the race would have to drop out.

“All of that is still possible under the right circumstances. It’s not likely, but it’s still possible,” he said.

Other analysts say Mrs. Clinton probably would use up her capital in clearing out other Democrats, making it tough for her to try again later if she failed in 2004.

One pollster says he hasn’t heard of Mrs. Clinton commissioning any surveys to evaluate her chances, though he said one firm had done a poll on its own during the summer that showed voters would prefer that Mrs. Clinton wait until 2008 to run for president.

National polls taken before Mr. Clark entered the race show Mrs. Clinton topping the primary field of potential Democratic candidates, and losing to President Bush in the general election.

Morris Reid, a political strategist who served in the Commerce Department under Secretary Ron Brown, says Mrs. Clinton must win Senate re-election in 2006 to build a record.

“It is absolutely pivotal that she gets re-elected to the Senate,” Mr. Reid said. “I think that’s where her focus is.”

Another indication that Mrs. Clinton isn’t running, he says, is the endorsement of Mr. Clark by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat. Mr. Rangel is a 17-term congressman who is highly influential in his state’s Democratic politics.

However, many analysts say that if Mrs. Clinton gets in the race, she would alter the landscape dramatically and immediately. “I personally don’t feel [the race] is closed,” John Catsimatidis, a Manhattan supermarket executive and Clinton fund-raiser, told the New York Daily News. “It will likely depend on how badly George W. does in the polls.”

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