Don't underestimate Hillary

For Hillary Clinton, this September could be like September 1991. That's when she accompanied her husband to a Monitor breakfast where they would see how Washington's top political writers would "take" to his idea of running for president.

At this gathering, Gov. Bill Clinton was at his best, showing his ability to discuss clearly and in great detail the most complex legislative programs and political matters and to lay out an already well-planned agenda for America should he make it to the White House. Indeed, Mr. Clinton received a "boffo" rating in the articles written by the 40-plus journalists there that day. And, with that positive response, he decided to run for president.

John White, a former Democratic national chairman who was working closely with Mr. Clinton then, told me later that he'd urged the governor to come to the breakfast as a final test of whether he should enter the Democratic presidential primaries.

The test very specifically included the need to find out whether the widely circulated rumors about Clinton's infidelity would be too much baggage for him to carry out a winning campaign. Clinton received an especially understanding and sympathetic response from the journalists when he said that, like so many married people, he and Hillary had had personal problems between them to work out - and they had done so: "And we intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now, regardless of whether I run for president or not." Mrs. Clinton nodded emphatically.

I know my own response - in one of my columns - was that I believed in healing, and that if the two of them had worked this out, I saw no political problems of that nature ahead for a White House-seeking Clinton. Little did I know that Gennifer Flowers was on the near horizon and that Monica Lewinsky was out there in the future.

When Clinton, shortly after the breakfast, jumped into the race, he was entering a contest for a Democratic nomination that didn't seem worth very much. President Bush was still holding onto his post-Gulf War popularity and looking unbeatable. Mario Cuomo, who was rated the most promising Democratic contender, had dropped out before even entering the race. And other leading Democrats had turned their backs on the opportunity.

So Clinton entered a weak Democratic field - and he certainly wasn't a favorite. The five-term Arkansas governor was hardly known outside his own state, except for his excessively long speech at the 1988 Democratic national convention.

But if Mrs. Clinton should decide to enter the 2004 race this fall, she would be in a far better position than her husband was 12 years ago. All the political pundits that I've been reading and watching are saying that, should she decide to run, she'd blow out all the others now seeking the nomination.

But these same pundits are also unanimous in their verdict: She won't run; she has her eyes on 2008. And Mrs. Clinton's clear answer to Barbara Walters's question about running in 2004: a strong "no." As in 1991, too, it appears at this time it would be difficult to beat another "unbeatable" George Bush.

And there are polls that show how polarized the voters are over Mrs. Clinton - about a third of them being Clinton haters and a third being Clinton lovers. The pollster John Zogby found that same polarization among New York voters when Mrs. Clinton entered the New York Senate race. But after voters got to know her: Well, you know what happened.

I'm not saying that Hillary Clinton will astonish the political experts and jump into this race. But I am saying that she just might - and if she does, it will be no runaway for Mr. Bush. I wouldn't write off this remarkable woman who possesses so much energy and political savvy.

And that book she's written that has stirred up so much comment: It won't change the views of the Clinton haters and lovers. But to write such a book about herself - one that she knew was bound to get so much national attention - well, what a great way to lead into an announcement of a decision to run for president.

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