WASHINGTON—She's in. But can she win?
That's the question facing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York—not to mention her Democratic Party and the country—as she settles the much easier question of whether she'd actually run for president.
Her announcement Saturday that she's forming a presidential exploratory committee raised anew the question that will dominate the Democratic presidential campaign in the weeks and months to come.
Can she use her enormous political advantages—cash, fame and the Clinton brand name—to brush aside party rivals, win the Democratic nomination and go on to seize the White House as the first woman president in U.S. history?
Or will she fall to the weaknesses that haunt her every political step—fatigue over Clinton scandals and fear that she'd drag the party down to defeat and leave the White House in Republican hands—and open the door to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois or former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina?
For Clinton, already popular in her party, the question is not whether she should win, but whether she can. She'll have to answer that before she can address such questions as what she'd do about the Iraq war and domestic issues.
"I'm in. And I'm in to win," Clinton said Saturday.
Fresh from re-election to a second term, the 59-year-old Democrat stressed her potentially ground-breaking role as a woman candidate.
"We will make history and remake our future," she said. "We can only break barriers if we dare to confront them."
She also ran directly at her most glaring weakness—the perception that she is too polarizing a figure to win a general election against a Republican.
"I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate, and how to beat them," she said.
Clinton enters the campaign in a unique role as a former first lady already known by most of the country.
"People love her or hate her," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "The question is, are there enough in the middle to make a difference?"
In a clash of Clinton nostalgia and Clinton fatigue, she starts out with enormous assets other candidates can only envy:
_A name brand enormously popular in the party;
_A yearning for the seeming peace and prosperity of the Clinton `90s;
_A large network of friends and allies built through three decades of work on public policies such as children's issues and health care;
_$13 million in the bank available from her last Senate campaign and the combined fundraising muscle of a base in New York and her husband's friends in Hollywood.
She leads Democrats in one recent series of polls in all four of the states slated to start the nomination voting next January—Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina—but does not enjoy a commanding lead in any of them.
Polls last month by the American Research Group found her with the support of about a third of likely caucus and primary voters in those states, followed by Edwards or Obama.
She also starts with glaring weaknesses, including:
_Weariness of Clinton scandals;
_Fear that she's peaked and cannot win over any more support than she already has_or any red states that went for Republicans in past elections.
_Complaints from the anti-war base of her party that she hasn't called her vote for the Iraq war a mistake, or taken a harder stance against it now.
"The feeling is that, if she gets the nomination, there goes the South," said Goldford. "She starts about 170 electoral votes in the hole. Then she has to win 75 percent of the remaining electoral votes."
Clinton is not the first woman to seek a major party nomination. But she starts with the best chance of any in history.
"I am one of the millions of women who have waited all their lives to see the first woman sworn in as president of the United States, and now we have our best opportunity to see that dream fulfilled," said Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, a group that raises campaign cash for Democratic women who support abortion rights.
The group endorsed Clinton within hours of her announcement.
Clinton aides also noted that women will be an "X factor" in the 2008 election, making up as much as 54 percent of general election voters. "Many, particularly those in the younger generation, believe it is about time this country had its first woman president," said Clinton pollster Mark Penn.
They also insisted that rather than scarring Clinton, scandal and negative campaigns have proven Clinton's mettle. "Hillary is the one potential nominee who has been fully tested," Penn said, an apparent reference to Obama's recent appearance on the national stage.
Clinton planned to follow up with live, web-based videoconferences with voters Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. EST_available through her website, www.hillaryclinton.com. She also was considering making her first campaign trips to Iowa and Hew Hampshire in coming weeks.
For more on her campaign, www.hillaryclinton.com
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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