Hillary ’08: Don’t Ask If-It’s a Go!

Let’s just get this out of the way now: She’s running.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has a re-election campaign in front of her in 2006, but as far as many around her are concerned, the train has already departed for a destination two years farther out-the Presidency.

“She is going to focus on going for Senate and getting that out of the way, but the eye is always on the prize,” a former aide to Mrs. Clinton told The Observer.

Mrs. Clinton currently is gearing up for her re-election with a campaign whose cost and intensity are taking on the scale of a national race. The first, slightly frantic fund-raising letters already have gone out, warning of coming Republican attacks. And a veteran national Democratic player, Ann Lewis, will start work at Mrs. Clinton’s Washington, D.C., offices in January. Mrs. Clinton is on a path to finish her re-election campaign in November 2006 and-assuming she isn’t the first New York Democrat in a century to lose a Senate seat-pivot swiftly toward the White House. A loyal circle of advisors led by her husband is urging her on, allies say, despite the doubts that some supporters will express privately.

And so the question isn’t whether Mrs. Clinton is running for President. It’s whether it’s already too late to pull the brakes.

Most of the comments by Mrs. Clinton’s current and former advisors were given on the condition of anonymity because using the words “President” and “2008” in public is something of a taboo in the Senator’s circle. The subject has the same effect on Clintonistas that the words “Skull and Bones” have on members of that secret society, who are said to be required to get up and leave the room when their club is mentioned. But as with the secret society, refusing to talk about the Clinton campaign doesn’t mean you don’t know about it-it means you’re a member.

Howard Wolfson, the former campaign aide who continues to serve as a spokesman for all things political in Mrs. Clinton’s life, stayed true to form on the question.

“We’re focused on 2006,” he said, offering: “You can say, ‘Wolfson would not discuss ’08.'”

But another Clinton insider said the refusal to talk about the next step doesn’t mean nobody’s thinking about it.

“In very, very small circles, people are thinking about it and talking about it,” he said. “But they’re not using the term ‘Presidency,’ not using the term ‘national office.’ We talk about having a greater profile, a firmer stance on issues that Democrats are seen as weak on.”

And Mrs. Clinton’s ramped-up Senate campaign will have much of the intensity and cash of a national campaign. The Clintons’ wide, tight network of political supporters and friends-from veteran brawlers like Harold Ickes to party media stars like James Carville and Paul Begala, to a younger, New York–based set of former campaign aides-remains in the wings.

Mrs. Clinton’s top fund-raiser, Patti Solis Doyle, who is also said to be her closest confidante, has launched an intense fund-raising effort to build on the more than $5 million that Mrs. Clinton already has in the bank.

An e-mail message to potential donors earlier this month, first reported in The New York Sun, asked them to “fight back” against a “new flood” of attacks on Mrs. Clinton. The e-mail quoted unnamed groups as stating “Bill and Hillary Clinton are outlaws” who “must be held accountable for their crimes.”

Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising committee, the Friends of Hillary, recently asked donors to “fight back” against what it called a “new flood” of shrill anti-Hillary rhetoric coming from conservative groups it says are raising their own funds to defeat her.

The mainstream of the conservative press, however, has been enjoying Mrs. Clinton’s steady march toward 2008.

The Washington Times recently ran a story arguing that she is “more conservative than President Bush” on illegal immigration-a notion which made the gleeful rounds of Fox News punditry, despite its being based on comments drawn from a year-old radio interview.

And while there’s no real evidence of a rightward shift on immigration, Clinton supporters say the centerpiece of her drive toward the Presidency is a careful self-definition in the Senate, where she has carved herself a place to the right of where some of her allies, and her critics, might have expected to find her. (Though anyone who paid much attention to the eight years her husband was President might have been less surprised.) She supported the invasion of Iraq from a perch on the Armed Services Committee, for example, and opposes gay marriage.

“If she decides to run” for President, said Harold Ickes, a longtime advisor to both Clintons, “she’s doing totally the right things.”

Mr. Ickes, who has spoken skeptically of Mrs. Clinton’s shot at the Presidency, called her a “brilliant Senator.”

“It’s something that a lot of us had as an open question about Mrs. Clinton early on, but she really does understand how the institution works,” he said.

But earlier this year, Mrs. Clinton heard people like James Carville-and, the rumor in Clinton circles had it, Bill himself-tell her that her first term in the Senate should also be her last. She would have a clearer shot at the Presidency, the theory went, and be free of a damaging re-election campaign.

One influential Democrat, former Recording Industry Association of America chief Hilary Rosen, told The Observer that she had approached Mrs. Clinton with that suggestion more than a year ago, to be met with “that charming, non-answer Hillary laugh.”

“If she is our best hope for a woman to be President some day-and I believe she is-another run for the Senate from New York is not necessarily the best way to get there,” Ms. Rosen said. “She’s just going to have to keep talking about all of the issues of the left for the next two years, whereas if she weren’t running, she would be able to dictate the agenda. I just think it’s distracting.”

Mrs. Clinton has chosen to ignore the advice. In the Senate, she will have an opportunity to defy stereotypes in the coming years. This term, with its looming battles royal over Social Security and other Bush-agenda items, offers her particularly potent opportunities on the policy front.

Mrs. Clinton has also moved, in an act of political jujitsu, to turn health-care reform-a political albatross since she led a task force on reform during her husband’s Presidency-into an advantage. On that front, she’s pushing for legislation to modernize the information-technology infrastructure of the health-care system.

Despite the impression that she has moved to the right, Mrs. Clinton has yet to make any major departures from the Democratic Party mainstream, and while she’s picked eclectic subjects and shown a talent for working across party lines, she’s hardly a conservative. Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal group, for example, gave Mrs. Clinton a 95 percent rating last year, chiding her only for her vote in favor of an appropriation for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Gun Owners of America recently bestowed on her its prized (well, in some circles) “F-minus” rating.

But while some of Mrs. Clinton’s advisors view the coming Senate race as a threat and a source of pressure to embrace New York’s liberal base, others see a campaign that will be conducted largely in upstate and western New York as practice for Ohio in 2008.

Heartland, N.Y.

“Upstate, that’s all the Midwest. That’s Cleveland and Detroit,” said one Clinton backer. “The themes that will be tested, we’ll see how they work also on a national level.”

That may take some doing. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 23 percent of Americans say they dislike Mrs. Clinton “a lot.” (A larger share say the same thing about President Bush.) But-as around many Presidential contenders-the confidence of her supporters provides a powerful source of momentum.

“I’m one of the few in the semi-inner circle who [doesn't] think she can win,” Mr. Ickes told Time magazine not long after this year’s election. He told The Observe r he thinks Mrs. Clinton hasn’t yet made up her mind about 2008. “My sense is she hasn’t made any decision to do it,” he said.

But there’s no harm in being prepared, particularly for a woman who has an industry devoted to destroying her. One of its leading spokesman, former Clinton advisor Dick Morris, was asked recently by Fox News’ Allan Colmes, “Are you going to spend the next four years blasting Hillary Clinton, going after, attacking Hillary Clinton?”

“You bet I am,” Mr. Morris replied.