The Clinton books: 'Rehash for cash' or threat to her campaign?

The presidential hopeful stars in two unflattering tomes that, at the least, are reminders of her polarizing profile.

Two unflattering books about Hillary Rodham Clinton – one focusing on her life before the Senate, the other on her Senate years – hit the bookstores this week, giving rise to a key question: Will the voting public dismiss them as "rehash for cash," as her supporters say, or will the books refresh memories of Senator Clinton's past that could help tip voters against her when decision day comes?

One school of thought, joined by some opponents, says that the books contain no bombshell revelations and that they mainly reinforce negative aspects of her life that are already widely known to voters. The first book, "A Woman in Charge," slated for release on Tuesday, portrays Clinton as a complex woman who has "stood for good things" but "has misrepresented not just facts but often her essential self...."

The author, former Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein, provides chapter and verse on the serial philandering of Clinton's husband, the former president, and how she ultimately saved his political career by covering for him and actively working to discredit his accusers. Mr. Bernstein also chronicles her own ambitions and emergence as a politician in her own right.

In the second book, "Her Way," due for release on June 8, the focus is on Clinton's Senate years, with new detail on her Senate vote in 2002 to authorize US military action in Iraq. Investigative reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta reveal that Clinton did not read the National Intelligence Estimate that was central to the Bush administration's argument for going to war.

At the Democratic presidential debate Sunday night in New Hampshire, the effect of both books could be felt. Candidates were asked to explain how they would use ex-President Clinton if they were elected – and for Senator Clinton, the return of her husband to the White House as "first man" raises questions about his personal behavior going forward. The question of Bill Clinton's potential return to the White House came up in the last Republican debate, before the new books' highlights had been revealed, but given all the public discussion of the Bernstein book and its focus on the Clinton soap opera, that became a particularly piquant subtext to that question on Sunday.

At the debate, Clinton was also asked to respond to the suggestion that she had not read the National Intelligence Estimate, a point she acknowledged obliquely. "I was thoroughly briefed," she responded. "I knew all the arguments, I knew all of what the Defense Department, the CIA, the State Department were all saying. And I sought out dissenting opinions, as well as talking to people in previous administrations and outside experts."

Clinton's vote to authorize the war and subsequent refusal to declare that decision a mistake have frustrated the liberal base of the Democratic Party – and given rise to serious competition for her party's nomination in the form of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who opposed the war from the start, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who early in his presidential campaign did apologize for his own authorization vote.

If such books were a given, the Clintons may be grateful to be getting them out of the way now and not, say, at Christmas, on the eve of the nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"As far as she's concerned, it's better to get them out there early," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Still, she adds, "there's not much she can do. Of course, she can say that's in the past, and we're going forward, but in fact, people do use the past to make predictions about people's future behavior."

The books – and the reminders they provide of Clinton's polarizing profile – could add to concerns some Democrats have about her electability. They need only look to the 2004 race, when Vermont Gov. Howard Dean got to within weeks of the Iowa caucuses in first place in the polls only to see the floor drop out of his support over concerns he was not electable.

Whit Ayres, a Republican Party pollster, disagrees that the new books pose a threat to Clinton's campaign, because she is already so well known to the public and because there is no new information in the books that does not already fit preconceived notions of her.

"If Hillary were a stock, you would say that all the bad news in those books is already in her stock price," says Mr. Ayres. He notes that in the Hotline's latest poll, her favorable rating was 48 percent, versus 46 percent unfavorable. "That's a whole lot of people who have already made up their minds."

Analysts agree that the books force her off message and into discussions of the past, instead of making the case that she represents the change voters want

"The real question for her is whether she is able to do in the diners and coffee shops and living rooms of people in Iowa and New Hampshire what she did in New York," when she won her Senate seat in a state where she had never lived, says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates.

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