She's not a candidate ... probably

The NY senator could shake up the Democratic race - but will she do it?

Will she or won't she? She's not - but she might. Maybe.

As if the field of Democratic presidential contenders isn't crowded enough, lately they're having to deal with an additional presence, hovering like the ghost in "Hamlet": Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Despite the former first lady's careful, repeated assertions that she's "not running" - a position she reiterated Wednesday at a Monitor breakfast - speculation about a potential Clinton-Bush rematch in 2004 has been simmering throughout Washington, adding a layer of uncertainty to the race and generating a new crop of Clinton conspiracy theories.

For the most part, the rumors can be attributed to wishful thinking on the part of Democratic loyalists - as well as to some right-wing critics for whom Senator Clinton remains a useful antagonist for fundraising and motivating the GOP base.

But it's also the result of some recent developments, such as the eye-catching number of Clinton associates working on the campaign of fellow Arkansan Gen. Wesley Clark (fueling speculation about a possible Clark-Clinton or Clinton-Clark "dream team"). Then there have been those curious statements coming from the former president himself, telling a group of donors that the Democratic Party has "two stars" - his wife and General Clark - and commenting that he believed New York voters would release her from her pledge to serve out her Senate term were she to run.

Senator Clinton has been so dogged by questions about her intentions lately that she jokingly opened her comments at the Monitor breakfast by saying "Oh, woe is me." But like any good politician, she has also managed, throughout her denials, to leave the door just the tiniest crack open - never flatly ruling out a future run. She also indicated that she would play a strong role in the coming election, contributing in any way she can to help her party defeat President Bush.

"I do have an overriding goal - and that is to help elect a Democratic president," she said. "I am convinced totally that four more years of this administration ... would be an overwhelming setback for our country. I will do everything I can to elect whoever emerges from this process."

Of course, behind much of the speculation lies a blunt calculus: Senator Clinton has been widely talked about as a contender for 2008. But that possibility rests on the assumption that her party loses in 2004 - and with Bush suddenly looking vulnerable, Democrats sense they can take the White House this time around.

At the same time, the failure of any current candidate to effectively clear the field has left many activists wondering whether the party is putting forward its best possible line-up.

But despite Mr. Clinton's recent comments about New York voters, some analysts believe she would severely damage her credibility by breaking her pledge to serve out her Senate term. Indeed, according to the latest Marist Poll, 67 percent of New York voters expect her to finish her term.

Many observers say the speculation alone may be providing Clinton with the best of both worlds, shoring her up for her Senate reelection campaign in 2006, and further establishing her as the automatic frontrunner for 2008, if Bush is reelected this time around.

"My guess is what she's doing right now is just keeping the speculation going because in New York, when the lights of Broadway shine down upon you, voters respond," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll. "But the minute she says the words Des Moines, Iowa, or Manchester, New Hampshire, her credibility goes out the window."

Shadow candidates often hang over fields with no incumbent or obvious frontrunner: In 1992, Democrats had to contend with the wavering New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who actually kept a plane waiting on the tarmac to go to New Hampshire on the day of the filing deadline. Similarly, the past two GOP fields have been haunted to some extent by the looming figure of Colin Powell.

Analysts say these candidates tend to create a grass-is-always greener effect. "The current candidates are out there on a daily basis, exposed with all their flesh-and-blood faults, whereas it is very easy to idealize these other candidates who aren't there," says William Meyer, an expert on presidential primaries at Northeastern University.

Yet often, Professor Meyer points out, the imagined strength of these fantasy candidates doesn't actually materialize when they actually run.

Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, for example, hovered over the Democratic field in both 1972 and 1976, but then failed to secure the party's nomination when he ran in 1980.

In Clinton's case, while she may be the Democrats' biggest star (aside from her husband), her potency as a potential presidential candidate is less clear-cut.

Despite her years in the campaign trenches as a political spouse, her experience as an elected official is so far limited to her current term as senator from New York.

Similarly, in a cycle where most observers agree national security will dominate the race, Clinton's defense and foreign policy credentials might come up short.

Still, she has taken notable steps to shore up her experience in that arena, securing a seat on the Armed Services Committee. More intriguing, she may be one of the few national figures who could successfully challenge Bush on one of his greatest strengths: his leadership in the wake of 9/11.

At the Monitor breakfast, Clinton repeatedly emphasized her connection to the events of Sept. 11 as a New York senator, portraying it as the driving force behind her day-to-day work.

Clinton lambasted the failure of the Bush administration to keep the people of New York as safe as possible, citing everything from its reported interference with a report about air quality at Ground Zero to its failure to provide funding for first responders.

Clinton also has the benefit of a deep political and fundraising network, which makes her one of the few potential candidates who could still get into the race at the last minute.

Polls show that she would easily beat out any of the current Democrats for the nomination.

To Republicans, Clinton's continued hovering over the field is further evidence of its weakness.

"I do think the speculation about Senator Clinton [possibly jumping in] is a reflection of a sense that with this field, as a rule, there is something missing there," said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, at a recent Monitor breakfast.

But others say it's unlikely to damage the party's chances in the long run.

While the Democratic candidates in 1992 were likely "annoyed" by all the rumors about Governor Cuomo or Sen. Bill Bradley jumping in, it didn't hurt them, says Professor Myers: "Bottom line was, they didn't get in, and ultimately the nomination went to Bill Clinton - and he won."

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