MANCHESTER, N.H.—As they ponder how to win back the White House, many Democrats fear that the early front-runner for their party's 2008 presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, carries so much baggage that she'd drag the party down to defeat.
Many support her, to be sure, and even more admire her. Polls confirm that she has the early edge over other potential rivals. Party insiders think she'll enter the race shortly after her expected re-election as a New York senator later this year—with a $50 million head start on fundraising toward 2008.
But ominous signs abound, and together they suggest that her campaign would conjure a clash between the lure of Clinton nostalgia and the fear of Clinton fatigue.
One new poll shows that a majority of registered voters never would vote for her. Another shows that a majority don't even want her to run, including a majority of independent voters.
One veteran South Carolina Democratic strategist says she's so well-known—and polarizing—that it's hard to see how she could change any minds.
"We all believe she's wonderful," said Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman. "But we also believe that if she's the nominee, it sets up perfectly for the Republicans to win the White House for another four years. ... Do we really want to rehash Whitewater and all the stuff we had before?"
Clinton hasn't committed to running. Aides say she's focused on winning her second Senate term next November, and they declined to comment on what they insist is a hypothetical 2008 presidential campaign.
Still, party activists expect her to run, and to start with a decided edge over such potential rivals as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Biden of Delaware, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
One reason for her presumptive lead, of course, is the affection in the party for her husband and hope that she could replicate his victories.
Another is her financial clout. She started this year with $17 million in the bank for a re-election that's assumed to be a breeze. Yet she's raising money at a fever pitch. Last week, she traveled to Florida for a fundraiser, and Paul Begala and James Carville, the men who ran her husband's 1992 presidential campaign, sent letters to Democrats nationwide seeking yet more contributions.
Federal law allows her to transfer any unused Senate-campaign cash to a presidential run.
She's also raising money for other Democrats. "She's earning some chits she can redeem later," said Mark Brewer, the Michigan state party chairman.
"She starts out in an enormously powerful position," said Chris Lehane, a California-based strategist who worked for Al Gore in 2000. "Probably 40 percent of the party base is solidly behind her. She taps into an enormous national network."
Yet many in the party are asking whether she can win, even those who think she should.
"I definitely have friends holding back ...," said a California Democratic fundraiser who likes Clinton and spoke on condition of anonymity in order to talk more freely. "I have a lot of friends, elite political types who normally would be racing to get involved with her but are holding back."
At a recent dinner in New Hampshire, traditionally the site of the nation's first presidential primary, many Democratic activists said they thought a Clinton presidential candidacy would be consumed with allegations about past Clinton scandals—his and hers. They said they feared that would distract from the issues of war, the economy and health care, and leave her unelectable.
"She's too much of a lightning rod. She will be the issue; she won't get to talk about the issues. I just don't feel positive about her being able to win," said Salme Perry of Rollinsford.
"I don't think she can possibly win," said Allison Dickey of Concord. "She inspires virulence among Republicans. I hope she doesn't run. And if she runs in the primaries, I hope she doesn't win."
"The Democratic Party would have a death wish if they put her in," said Barbara Lowrey of Londonderry. "Too many people find her unappealing."
A poll last week by Marist College underscored the fears. The WNBC/Marist Poll showed that 51 percent of registered voters don't want her to run, including 25 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents.
One key reason: Fifty-seven percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents polled think she'd be treated more harshly than other candidates.
Also, 51 percent of registered voters in a recent Gallup poll said they definitely wouldn't vote for Clinton.
"Most people have already made up their minds. I don't know what she could do to move much of that around," Harpootlian said.
In that environment, he added, it's difficult to see how Clinton could pick up one or more of the Republican "red" states that are needed to win an Electoral College victory.
Clinton insiders told Harpootlian that she can win Florida away from the Republicans. That'd be enough to win the White House if she also won all the states that Kerry won in 2004.
But Harpootlian said her strategy, and perhaps her appeal, was too narrow.
"I'd like to see a candidate who could pick up 10 or 15 more states," he said. "To concede at the front end that your candidate is marginalized enough that you hope to pick up one more state explains the problem."
The Marist poll of 931 registered voters was conducted Feb.13-15 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The Gallup poll of 928 registered voters was conducted Jan. 20-22 and had a margin of error of plus or minis 4 percentage points.
For more on Clinton's Senate campaign, go to www.hillaryclinton.com
For more on the Marist Poll, go to www.maristpoll.marist.edu
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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