WASHINGTON — Since when is Hillary Clinton the pin-up gal of conservative pundits?
After Clinton delivered a foreign-policy cold-cock to Barack Obama's head during a Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday:
— Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, a neo-conservative weekly, wrote that she delivered her answer to the now-famous "would-you-meet-with-despots" question "firmly and coolly."
— Rich Lowry of National Review, a conservative weekly, gushed like a schoolboy with a new crush: "She excels . . . Clinton has run a nearly flawless campaign and has done more than any other Democrat to show she's ready to be president."
— David Brooks, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, wrote that Clinton "seems to offer the perfect combination of experience and change" and said she's changing perceptions in a way that may persuade voters to give her a second look.
— Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist of The Washington Post, summed up the Clinton-Obama smackdown: "The grizzled veteran showed up the clueless rookie."
All this from members of a crowd that's spent the better part of two decades demonizing Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Is the conservative chattering class just hedging its bets, wary that Clinton might win the White House and banish them all?
Or is it a set-up: The vast right-wing conspiracy pumping up the polarizing candidate they really want to face in the general election?
Naturally, no one in politics wants to talk about that with their names attached, lest they alienate people whose favor they need. But here's what some political strategists said when given anonymity:
"Absolutely," said one Democrat, citing Clinton's high unfavorable ratings (42 percent in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, twice Obama's 21 percent). "Look at Fox News. They play her up all the time. Image-wise, they think she's the one Democrat they can beat right now."
"A plausible theory," said a Republican strategist with a top-tier GOP candidate. "Hillary Clinton is our best shot to win the White House. That's pretty much consensus by Republican insiders. It's a really crappy environment for us right now. What she does, and what Obama doesn't do yet, is single-handedly solve our base problems. Because of who she is."
Others laugh off the "set up Hillary" theory.
"The vast conspiracy is not that well organized," said John Hinderaker, co-founder of Power Line, a popular conservative blog. "We couldn't pull that off if we tried."
Conservative admiration for Clinton — on the foreign-policy debate question specifically and the way she's running her campaign generally — is real, said Hinderaker, who added that he thought she'd be a tougher opponent for Republicans than the less-experienced Obama or the smooth former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Could the plaudits of the right hurt Clinton with the left-ish voters who dominate the Democratic primaries? That's clearly what Obama thinks, as he mocks Clinton's position as "Bush-Cheney lite."
The question, briefly, was whether a new president should meet with anti-American leaders without pre-conditions in his or her first year in office.
Obama said sure. Hillary said not without preliminary diplomacy to avoid getting used in a propaganda trap. They've been sniping at each other about it ever since. She said he's naive. He said her position of not talking to bad guys sounds like Bush, and of course he'd do some preliminary diplomacy, too.
This 60-second sound bite's not much of a way to choose a president, to be sure, but it's the closest the two Democratic frontrunners have come so far to taking each other on frontally, so politicos are feasting on it.
The Clinton camp believes it won the weeklong spat. Her supporters aren't concerned about liberals being upset by conservatives' praise for Clinton, pointing out that many — though not all — on the left also say that Clinton's debate answer was better than Obama's.
Edwards, running to the populist left of both Clinton and Obama, said at the debate that he agreed with Clinton. And in The Nation, a liberal weekly, David Corn wrote that, "this moment illustrated perhaps the top peril for the Obama campaign: with this post-9/11 presidential contest, to a large degree, a question of who should be the next commander in chief, any misstep related to foreign policy is a big deal for a candidate who has little experience in national security matters."
If Clinton can get the National Review and The Nation to agree that she won a debate, maybe diplomacy is her strength.