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Democrats getting a head start on 2008

Mike Glover Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday the nation has “gone off track” in Republican hands since the prosperous years of her husband’s presidency, making her case along with other potential 2008 Democratic candidates to a group that helped Bill Clinton win the White House.

Sen. Clinton received a warm reception for her plea that the party adopt a hard line on national security and back an increase in troop strength, echoing the stance of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. She also called for expanded health care, increased jobs and better education.

Her core message was a need for Democratic solidarity.

“After four years of Republican control, our country has not only gone off track, it has reversed course,” the New York senator said. “Let’s start by uniting against the hard-right ideology.”

Among other possible 2008 candidates, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack assumed the chairmanship of the DLC, and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh spent the weekend courting activists before delivering speeches on Monday at the group’s annual meeting.

•Vilsack said Democrats must have “a positive, progressive, practical agenda. We can’t afford to be anti, against everything.”

•Warner made a pitch for expanding the Democratic electoral map. He said, “I am here today to tell you how important the heartland strategy is for the Democratic Party and the future of the country. … We as Democrats neglect the heartland at our own peril.”

•Bayh said the party’s future lies in the Midwest: “Our success as a party will largely be determined by how well we do here in the heartland. … The time has come to be secure about our values. The time has come to lead.”

Bayh described Clinton as a “very strong front-runner” for the Democratic nomination three years from now. Polls show the same thing, though there also are many voters who have a negative view of the former first lady.

Sen. Clinton’s speech focused on domestic issues and improving the lot of average Americans, harking back to her husband’s presidency.

“I know we can do all this because we’ve done it before,” she told the nearly 400 activists gathered for the DLC’s annual meeting.

In another allusion to her husband’s eight years in the White House, she said, “They turned our bridge to the 21st century into a tunnel back to the 19th century. We are thinking Democrats, not lockstep Republicans.”

The speech was coupled with the announcement that Clinton had been chosen to head the DLC’s “American Dream Initiative,” described by the organization as a national conversation with business, political, labor, civic and intellectual leaders on an agenda for the country and party.

The chairmanship will allow her to travel around the nation next year, at the same time she is seeking another term in the Senate. The job will be an opportunity to burnish an already high-profile image, one that energizes Democrats and Republicans – in opposite ways – as the former first lady is both revered and vilified.

Clinton talked tough on combating terrorism, calling for “a unified, coherent strategy focused on eliminating terrorists wherever we find them” while arguing that more can be done to bring other nations into the fight.

The Republican National Committee dismissed her comments, saying in a statement that “Sen. Clinton can talk the talk in an effort to grab headlines, but she can’t run from her hard-left record.”

She urged Democrats to put aside divisiveness.

“All too often we have allowed ourselves to be split between left, right and center,” said Clinton. “It’s high time for a cease-fire. It’s time for all Democrats to work together.”

Clinton has taken a course toward the political center as the speculation about 2008 has grown.

In January, she used an appearance before abortion-rights advocates to call for “common ground” on the issue and recently joined with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to push for health care legislation like a single system for medical billing that all insurers and providers would use to save time and money.

In a nod to the political calendar, Pat Gerard, vice mayor of Largo, Fla., said a lot can happen between now and 2008.

“Star power doesn’t always mean everything,” said Gerard. The early star gets the most criticism, he noted.

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