The Real Star of the G.O.P. Primary: Hillary

The most influential noncandidate in the Republican presidential primary is not Pat Robertson, Paul Weyrich or any other supposed kingmaker.

It is Hillary Clinton.

She has been a star of the G.O.P story line so far, standing as a reference point for the primary field and recurring theme in the rhetoric of the leading candidates.

Mr. Giuliani’s success in maintaining his front-runner status this fall has been in no small part due to his ability to seize on and magnify Mrs. Clinton’s missteps and turn them into media events.

Whether leaping on her refusal to condemn’s General Petraeus ad, or creating an online mock-up of her “Baby Bond,” or chastising her for hedging on driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, Mr. Giuliani has jumped at the chance to portray his potential general election opponent as out of touch and unfit for the presidency. His response to a debate moderator who asked him whether he was sufficiently different from Mrs. Clinton on policy issues was a succinct “you gotta be kidding.”

His use of Mrs. Clinton as a foil has delighted the conservative base. It has also allowed him to argue that even if they disagree with some of his policy positions, they should not doubt his willingness to take on their most loathed foe.

Mr. McCain’s recent comeback, meanwhile, has been greatly aided by a debate moment in which he lampooned Mrs. Clinton’s legislative earmark for a Woodstock museum. He parlayed his jibe into campaign ads and a wholesale indictment of the 1960’s counterculture (which still drives conservatives to distraction). Having fun at her expense has a serious purpose for Mr. McCain, establishing him on common ground—and with a common enemy—with conservative primary voters.

Mrs. Clinton has had an impact on the Thompson campaign too, but it has largely been a negative one. In the context of a looming matchup with Mrs. Clinton, Fred Thompson’s candidacy has looked that much more alarming to conservatives looking for a nominee who can actually stop her.

Does he have the energy and the verbal arsenal to go toe-to-toe with the formidable Clinton campaign? His dropping poll numbers indicate that primary voters think not.

But it has become necessary for each of the would-be Republican nominees to set themselves up in contrast to the former first lady. In the wake of Mrs. Clinton’s convoluted performance in the most recent Democratic debate, for example, the Republican candidates were just as quick as her actual primary opponents to seize on her waffling.

And Mr. Giuliani and, more recently, Mitt Romney have each taken to criticizing Mrs. Clinton’s lack of business and administrative experience to bolster their own credentials. Mr. Giuliani reminds voters that Clinton hasn’t has had responsibility for the “safety of others”; Mr. Romney mocks her for never having managed so much as a corner store.

It’s not overstating things to say that even before she has won her own party’s nomination, Mrs. Clinton is reshaping what G.O.P. voters are looking for in their candidate. The result is that the current Republican primary contest is being steered away from usual considerations of ideology and conservative bona fides, and more towards a single, pragmatic question: Who can beat Hillary Clinton?

The Real Star of the G.O.P. Primary: Hillary