They’ve Started: Clinton II Crew Lines Up Early

Last fall, Democratic insiders were whispering that Roger Altman would be John Kerry’s Treasury Secretary.

Of course, Mr. Altman’s prospects were dampened somewhat when Mr. Kerry failed to live up to his end of the bargain in November. But gossip springs eternal, and now those in the know (or who think of themselves as such) have reason to speculate about Mr. Altman’s ambitions again.

The onetime Clinton administration official-he was Bill Clinton’s deputy Treasury Secretary-is being mentioned again as a possible Treasury Secretary in the next Clinton administration. That would be the one headed by presumed 2008 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A few weeks before Mr. Kerry’s defeat, Mr. Altman made the maximum $4,000 contribution to the New York Senator’s 2006 re-election campaign.

It’s hardly a secret that Presidential campaigns begin a lot earlier than they used to-can we talk about 2012 yet?-and that’s especially the case when a famous woman who represents New York is considered a likely candidate. Never mind that George W. Bush’s second term is but a few months old. Speculation about 2008 already has begun everywhere from the salons of the Upper East Side to the trenches of blogs like DailyKos.

Mrs. Clinton, who began raising money in earnest for her re-election only after Mr. Kerry’s defeat in November, is drawing support from a decidedly national combination of celebrities, ordinary citizens and favor seekers. Most of her closest supporters have already contributed the legal maximum to her campaign, so the latest campaign-finance report-which shows that she raised just over $1 million in the final months of 2004-offers the first glimpse of what her status as the country’s pre-eminent Democrat will mean.

And many contributors are looking well beyond Mrs. Clinton’s 2006 re-election campaign.

“I’m a supporter of her, not only for the Senate …. I’m supporting her for President,” said former Mayor Ed Koch. “Whatever she wants to do with [the money], I’m helping her build her treasury for either of those.”

Mrs. Clinton is a New York Senator with a seat on the powerful Armed Services Committee, and so New Yorkers as well as officials from defense contractors like Lockheed Martin made their expected appearance on the rolls of contributors. But Mrs. Clinton is not an ordinary Senator, and so money flowed in from around the country, and from everyone from an Air Force colonel in Maryland to former talk-show host Phil Donahue to the chairman of Sony USA, Howard Stringer. Two weeks after the election, a top fund-raiser and close friend of Senator Kerry, Alan Solomont, and his wife each gave $2,000 to Mrs. Clinton. In December, a check came in from former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein, a near-miss for the Attorney General’s job under President Clinton (er, that would be the Senator’s husband). And Richard Holbrooke, the perpetual Democratic Secretary of State hopeful, gave the maximum to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign months earlier.

“I’m supporting her for re-election to the Senate, and that’s what she’s asked me to do-nothing more and nothing less,” Mr. Solomont said, adding that Mr. Kerry would be present at a fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton in Boston this spring.

“Senator Clinton is grateful for the generous support she receives and continues to wake up everyday doing the best job she can for the people of New York,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a Clinton advisor.

The tone of the Senator’s fund-raising appeals, however, has been a bit starker. For Republicans, Hillary-hating has been a financial gold mine, and in an unusual act of political jujitsu, Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising appeals are all about fighting back against the Hillary haters.

“Have you picked up the paper lately or clicked on a cable channel to find someone saying the most outrageous things about Hillary Rodham Clinton? We have! It really steams us that some people would twist the truth or use such hateful language to attack a Senator who is working hard to make life better for the people of New York and the nation,” reads one appeal on the section of her Web site that exhorts her followers to become “Hillraisers” by raising money from their friends. “By becoming a HILLRAISER, you can fight back against the politics of personal destruction.”

All this organizing is nominally directed toward Mrs. Clinton’s coming re-election campaign, which could prove formidable if the Republicans find a challenger. The party seems to have fixed its hopes on Edward Cox, a Manhattan lawyer who is Richard Nixon’s son-in-law.

But for the wealthy donors and political operatives who make up New York’s political class-and who will gather at a large-scale fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton at the Hudson Theater on March 21-2006 is a convenient way to support Mrs. Clinton without the kind of commitment that organizing for a Presidential campaign would demand.

“People can support that re-election effort without making a judgment about what either she or they will do later,” said a prominent New York Democratic fund-raiser.

Bill’s Role

But it’s hard to approach Mrs. Clinton without considering the question of “later.” Her husband-whose role in Mrs. Clinton’s political life sometimes seems to be the trial-balloon-floater in chief-recently put her Presidential prospects back in the headlines.

“I don’t know if she’ll run or not,” Mr. Clinton told a Japanese television network, according to the Associated Press. “She would make an excellent President, and I would always try to help her.”

In fact, at least one employee of his Harlem-based William J. Clinton Foundation already has. On Oct. 17, while Mr. Kerry was stumbling his way toward the Election Day finish line, the foundation’s domestic-policy advisor, Clyde Williams, dropped $500 into Mrs. Clinton’s war chest.

Between her star power, her husband’s-“If you say no to Hillary, you’re saying no to Bill, and that’s not easy,” said a prominent city Democrat-and her place atop the national polls, Mrs. Clinton is among the easiest sells for political fund-raisers.

“It’s pretty easy, because I don’t think there’s another candidate,” said Toni Goodale, a Democratic fund-raiser.

Other names on Mrs. Clinton’s filing include Mary Meeker, the Morgan Stanley technologies analyst; Barnes and Noble chief executive Leonard Riggio; the designer Donna Karan; and Richard Roth, who produced the 1986 cult classic Blue Velvet.

This first round of post-election fund-raising, according to Clinton aides, is just the beginning of a massive push for a campaign that is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, and in which a strong Republican candidate could raise untold sums on the Internet.

Mrs. Clinton’s potential rivals don’t seem to mind her front-runner status, which has often turned out to be a liability. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, considering his own Presidential run, appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, happy to share his position that “she is likely to be the nominee” and would be “incredibly hard to beat.”

But neither media buzz nor national polls necessarily translate into votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, as Howard Dean learned last year, and Democrats both pro- and anti-Clinton are watching the party’s new dynamic with curiosity over what it will mean for Mrs. Clinton, should she seek the nomination.

On one hand, the traditional bases of support-from the donors in Manhattan and Hollywood to the older liberal advocacy groups-have longstanding ties to Mrs. Clinton.

But the Clintons have lost the last two major fights they picked: stopping Mr. Kerry and stopping Dr. Dean. Last winter, their apparent tacit blessing got Gen. Wesley Clark’s bid for the Presidency off the ground, but he soon fell back to earth. And this year, their longtime aide Harold Ickes was first floated as the Democratic National Committee chairman, then floated as a deputy and finally withdrew, to emerge in a kingmaker’s role only after Dr. Dean had sewn up the job on his own.

All this has produced a growing unease among some of the party’s traditional power brokers, particularly the big-dollar donors accustomed to a quiet hand early in the selection process. One prominent city Democrat speculated gloomily that his cadre might be losing their influence.

“All the traditional players are going to line up for Hillary, and the conventional power structure will line up for Hillary,” he said. “Who cares?”