WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Clinton likes to say that she's a better-vetted, more battle-tested Democrat than her rival, Sen. Barack Obama.
That may be, but it won't stop Republicans from mounting familiar attacks on her if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination.
Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona probably would use her failed 1990s attempt to overhaul health care to prove that she loves big government, her sponsorship of a bill to fund a Woodstock museum in New York to sneer that she's a counterculture-loving liberal and the checkered record of Bill Clinton's administration to tie her in knots, said Republican strategists who aren't affiliated with McCain's campaign.
"You make the campaign all about Hillary Rodham Clinton, probably the most polarizing figure in American politics today," said Scott Reed, who managed former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's unsuccessful 1996 White House run. "Nothing rallies Republicans around the country better than a Clinton. Her presence on radio and television is the equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard."
To rile up the Republican base, McCain probably would cite Clinton's present positions to take voters back to the past. As Clinton touts her new plan for universal health care, McCain would cite her failed 1993-94 plan. Republicans ridiculed that as "Hillarycare," calling it a bloated, complicated, government-run step toward socialized medicine.
A TV commercial that a health insurance-industry lobby paid for delivered the death blow to her plan. It featured "Harry and Louise," a middle-aged couple seated at a kitchen table, poring over bills and lamenting Clinton's bureaucratic plan.
"We would go after her health-care plan. It would be an updated 'Harry and Louise,' " said Neil Newhouse, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a Virginia-based Republican polling firm. "It would be socialized medicine, Canada, fining people who don't have health care."
Newhouse thinks that Clinton also is vulnerable on taxes. She wants to allow President Bush's tax cuts to expire to help pay for her initiatives, and advocates raising taxes on wealthy investors.
He said he'd also tag Clinton as a big tax-and-spender who was on the losing side of the culture wars by reminding voters of the three days of peace and music at Woodstock in 1969. She didn't attend the legendary music festival, but she did sponsor legislation seeking $1 million to help pay for a Woodstock museum in New York.
"You beat the hell out of that Woodstock museum in terms of taxes and spending and cultural issues," Newhouse said. "You say 'How does she pay for it? She raises your taxes.' "
McCain already has aired a 30-second TV ad in some primary states with footage of free-spirited Woodstock revelers dancing in the fields before cutting to grainy black-and-white footage of himself as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, as a McCain voiceover says he would've attended "but I was tied up at the time."
Some Republican strategists also think that McCain can win by linking Clinton to controversies from her husband's administration. She's already on the defensive about the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Bill Clinton considered one of his crowning presidential achievements but which labor unions and populists think paved the way for shipping U.S. jobs to Mexico.
Campaigning in economically battered Ohio, Hillary Clinton has said that she had private reservations about the trade deal, though there's no public record of her opposition to it before 2000, when she ran for the U.S. Senate from New York.
"She's carrying a big ol' suitcase named Bill," said Peter Schramm, a political science professor at Ashland University and a former Reagan administration official. "You tie her up in knots and get her to contradict herself, not only because she's a Democrat but because she's married to the last president."
But McCain must be careful not to push too hard on the Clinton years, Newhouse warned, because that could remind voters of better economic times and a more peaceful world.
On national security issues and foreign affairs, several strategists said that McCain would try to paint Clinton as soft on terrorism, noting that she voted to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq but later said she wished she could take back her vote.
Bill Dal Col thinks that Clinton would have a hard time going toe to toe against McCain on national security largely because of sexual stereotypes.
"The male image will be seen as stronger on security than the female image," said Dal Col, who managed Republican Steve Forbes' 1996 presidential campaign. "It may not be fair, but that's the social perception."
Republican strategists also think that if Clinton were the nominee, McCain would try to drive a wedge through the Democratic Party to get the lion's share of so-called Reagan Democrats and independent voters.
"You make sure you highlight the differences between Senator Clinton and the Democratic Party driven to Obama, and the similarities between Obama and McCain on change," Dal Col said. "For Senator Clinton, that's a harder sell."