WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton enters the 2008 presidential race uniquely positioned to make a top-flight run at be-coming America's first woman president.
The Democrat from New York brings to the table 14 years of experience at Washington's highest political levels, as both a two-term first lady and now six years as a US senator. She appears set to raise all the funds she needs, enjoys near-universal name recognition, and has at her side one of the nation's most astute political operatives, her husband, former President Clinton.
But Senator Clinton, who launched her exploratory committee on Saturday with the declaration of "I'm in," faces serious hurdles to reaching her goal. Last week's entry of Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois into the contest adds a charismatic, fresh persona to the mix, and makes Clinton's nomination far from a foregone conclusion. While Clinton has already withstood intense public scrutiny of her life and record, she will face questions again, in addition to charges that she is humorless and calculating. And as a Democratic woman seeking to become commander in chief at a time of war, she must prove her bona fides on defense as she seeks to distance herself from an unpopular war that she initially supported.
The field for both major parties has been growing almost daily, of late. This weekend alone, two other candidates announced: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas. For the Democrats, a field that includes a woman, an African- American (Senator Obama), and a Hispanic (Governor Richardson) as contenders sends the message of diversity that the party has long cultivated.
Most noteworthy, perhaps, is that the Democrats can boast a woman and an African-American as their top two candidates. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Friday night showed Clinton with the support of 41 percent of Democrats and Obama with 17 percent. But with the first nominating contests still a year away, those numbers remain fluid. Political analysts note that the third candidate in the Post-ABC poll (with 11 percent), former Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina, is well organized in the early states, and could upset the race with a strong finish in the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.
In Clinton's announcement video, posted Saturday morning on her campaign website, www.HillaryClinton.com, the senator deployed a technique she used successfully in her first Senate campaign – a pledge to begin by listening. She did not roll out a series of policy prescriptions, but rather stated that she was "beginning a conversation." Starting Monday evening, for three nights in a row, Clinton will conduct live video Web discussions with voters.
Of the many issues she raised on her written Web statement, two will present particular challenges to her: "How do we bring the war in Iraq to the right end?" she asked. "How can we make sure every American has access to adequate health care?"
Iraq is the No. 1 issue for voters, and the liberal, activist base of the Democratic Party has long been frustrated by Clinton's centrist approach, beginning with her to decision in October 2002 to vote in favor of a congressional resolution authorizing US military action in Iraq. She has stepped away from that position, and last month said if she knew then what she knows now, she would not have voted yes. But she has not pushed her opposition to the Iraq war as far as other Democratic candidates, including Mr. Edwards and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is also running again.
Last June, at a convention of liberal activists, Clinton was booed. In contrast, Obama was cheered by the same crowd, even though he has also hewed to the center on Iraq. Clinton's apparent status as a lightning rod of criticism may speak to her long tenure on the national stage and careful positioning on a range of issues that makes some progressives skeptical (though not unwilling to vote for her in the general election, many say, if she wins the nomination).
One of the many hurdles Clinton must face on the road to the White House has been dubbed "Clinton fatigue." Wrapped into that is her husband's turbulent eight years as president, including his marital infidelity and various investigations. In the White House, Hillary Clinton quickly established herself as the most powerful and controversial first lady in history, setting up shop in the West Wing and taking on the assignment of crafting a plan for national healthcare reform that failed to get off the ground.
Adding to the sense of fatigue is the years of speculation that Clinton may run for president herself some day. Now that she has jumped in, the political world can move to the next phase, an actual publicly announced campaign – as can she. But the arc of her effort may be hobbled by the fact that she is hardly a fresh face.
Then there's the family dynasty issue. Some voters may resist the idea of a succession of presidents that goes "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton" – especially since the second Bush presidency has struggled so profoundly of late.
Still, Clinton brings the test of time to the equation. After 14 years in the national spotlight, the chances that she will wither or make a major mistake seem lower than with her chief rival, Obama. As senators, both must spend the entire next year casting each vote carefully just to remain viable for the nomination. Whoever wins the nomination then must do the same for the general election campaign.
If Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona wins his party's nomination, he will face the same challenge. But if the nominee is one of the "formers" running on the GOP side – such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – he will be free of the pressure to cast votes.
One dimension of the Clinton campaign that carries both risks and positives is her gender. A female nominee may make the already difficult South even harder to contest, with the exception of battleground state Florida. How the Mountain West, where the Democrats have made gains in recent elections, and the Midwest react to a woman nominee is an open question.
On the plus side for Clinton, she has a "very strong connection to the women's movement, which is an important base in the Democratic Party," says Andrew Polsky, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York.
• Staff writer Ari Pinkus contributed to this report.