WASHINGTON – New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday launched a long-anticipated 2008 presidential campaign that could make her not lonely the first female president but also the only former first lady to follow her husband in the White House.
“I’m in and I’m in to win,” Clinton said on her campaign Web site early in the morning, and then spent the day at her Washington home calling to supporters, donors and friends. She decided to make the announcement as President Bush prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night, campaign advisers said, to draw a contrast with the administration’s record and help focus attention on the presidency.
Their hope, they said, is to establish Clinton as the candidate best prepared to become the first Democrat in the White House since Bush succeeded Bill Clinton six years ago.
“The stakes will be high when America chooses a new president in 2008,” she said in a statement posted on her Web site along with a video announcement. “As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush’s mistakes and restore our hope and optimism.”
Clinton begins the long campaign as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, according to a nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll completed Friday night. The poll showed her the favorite of 41 percent of Democrats, more than double the support of any of her potential rivals.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who established his exploratory committee last week, has generated enormous interest and attention, putting the Clinton camp on notice. The poll put him in second place among Democrats at 17 percent, but his support has not increased over the past month as he has moved toward a formal candidacy.
In hypothetical general election matchups against the two most prominent prospective GOP candidates, Clinton narrowly leads Arizona Sen. John McCain and is running about even with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
In her video statement, Clinton made only a glancing reference to the war in Iraq. She has emerged as a vocal critic of the president and opposes his proposal to send more than 20,000 additional troops into the conflict. But she voted for the war in 2002 and angered some party antiwar activists by standing behind that vote until last month.
Clinton brings considerable assets to the race.
As a former first lady now serving her second term in the Senate, she has one of the best-known names in American politics. She has a national network of supporters, the capacity to raise as much or more money than any of her rivals, and a resume of political activity dating back decades that includes a landslide re-election victory last November.
The size and experience of the Democratic field underscores the reality that, for all of her support, fundraising potential and political muscle, Clinton continues to face questions about whether she can win a general election.
The electability issue comes in different forms. Will she suffer from a sense of Clinton fatigue on the part of many voters, who may be looking for the kind of fresh face Obama offers? Is she too defined as a partisan Democrat to fit the mood of an electorate that may be hungry for a different style of politics after eight years of the Clinton presidency and six years of Bush? Have the attacks against her as a cold and calculating politician created an image that, correct or incorrect, will be difficult to overcome?
Wasting no time to confront the issue, Clinton’s campaign posted a 1,250-word memo on the Web site from strategist and pollster Mark Penn that begins: “People are always asking, can Hillary Clinton win the presidency? Of course she can.”
“The No. 1 asset we have is Hillary Clinton, her strength and leadership,” Penn said in an interview. “As more and more people get to know her – as they know her in New York – they will like the leadership and the experience she represents.”
But many Democrats say she will have to work to overcome skepticism about her candidacy inside the party. “Can they (voters) finally see the reality of Hillary Clinton, not the myth of Hillary Clinton?” said Mickey Kantor, who was commerce secretary in the Clinton administration and supports the senator’s candidacy. “The money will be there. … The experienced people will be there. All those things she will have. But the image (is something) she will have to turn around in some parts of the country.”