N.Y. fell for her, but will US voters?

Hillary Clinton has a '06 challenger, but the political twittering is about '08.

To some voters, she is a ruthless Machiavelli-in-a-pantsuit who will do anything to resume residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. To others, she is the brilliant and inspiring golden girl, poised to make history as America's first female president.

Nearly all Americans have an opinion about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York, and if she runs for president, as expected, she will begin her quest for the Democratic nomination well ahead of her rivals. On one point, still with 2-1/2 years to go before the first caucuses or primaries, political analysts agree: The nomination is hers to lose.

She could yet lose it, they add. Just as Democratic voters had second thoughts about Howard Dean's "electability" on the eve of the 2004 Iowa caucuses, so, too, could the earliest primary voters in 2008 get collective cold feet and opt for a safer choice. "There may be a 'eureka!' moment early in 2008, when Demo- crats find a more moderate candidate who can actually win in November," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Of course, the first hurdle for Senator Clinton is to persuade New Yorkers to reelect her in 2006 to her current post. In that contest, her likely opponent - Republican Jeanine Pirro, district attorney of Westchester County - is already making an issue of Clinton's presidential ambitions. "Hillary Clinton is not running to serve the people of New York," Ms. Pirro said Monday upon announcing her candidacy for the Senate seat. "We are just a way station in her run for the presidency."

There's no arguing that Clinton would bring a trunkful of baggage to a presidential race, including her controversial role in her husband's presidency. But some pollsters remain sanguine about her chances.

"She's got name recognition, she has a solid constituency, and she has a targeted women's constituency," says John Zogby, an independent pollster based in Utica, N.Y., who has watched Clinton campaign. "As first lady, she started out with being a hero to women working outside the home. During the latter part of the '90s, during [the Monica Lewinsky scandal] and impeachment, she became a hero to traditional wives. Whether she orchestrated it or not, she got people to admire her."

Still, her challenge in the general election would be stark: While most nonincumbent candidates start as a bit of a blank slate, Clinton would come out of the gate with high negatives baked into a significant portion of the American psyche during her 14 years in the national eye. The latest Gallup numbers on her, from May, showed that 39 percent of the public viewed her negatively. That same poll found 47 percent of registered voters either "not very likely" or "not at all likely" to vote for her in the 2008 general election.

On the flip side, Gallup found, 52 percent of voters would be "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to vote for her.

Though it's extremely early to be gauging her chances, Clinton's '08 prospects are an evergreen topic of conversation in political circles. The record $6 million second-quarter fundraising total for her Senate reelection made headlines in July - and reaffirmed her prowess as a money machine. Pundits made note, too, of her recent agreement to head up the centrist Democratic Leadership Council's project to craft a new agenda and message for the party. (The DLC was the ideological home base of her husband's presidential campaigns.)

Republicans, too, keep her in the news, either by partnering with her on legislation or as a foil on social issues. Early this month, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Senate Republican, struggling in his own reelection bid, challenged the "radical" Clinton to a debate on child- rearing during an appearance on ABC's "This Week."

For Hillary-watchers, one question is whether she can duplicate her New York success on a national scale. In 2000, she stunned naysayers and won over enough voters - despite her lack of New York roots - to win the seat of retiring Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D).

"I've seen her neutralize people who don't like her, simply by being charming and nice, crossing into their space and being nonthreatening," says Mr. Zogby.

As a national candidate, though, Clinton would have to adapt to the more TV-oriented, tarmac-to-tarmac format of general elections. Another challenge: Stumping in the "red" Republican parts of New York isn't the same as venturing into the red states of the South or Mountain states where Democrats have struggled.

"I kind of doubt she'll be able to" win over red America, says James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo.

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