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Hillary’s the only one who can smoke Bush out

Washington, Dec. 22: A third of New York Democrats are urging her to run.

Polls suggest that she is the only candidate capable of defeating President George W. Bush at the ballot box. Among a growing number of her supporters, only one question matters: can Hillary Clinton be persuaded to rescue her party in the 2004 presidential race'

Clinton has insisted that she intends to see out her term as New York senator, which ends in 2006, before possibly running for the presidency in 2008.

But following Al Gore’s announcement last week that he will not run for the presidency a second time, her name has repeatedly cropped up in polls, alongside expected candidates such as Joe Lieberman, Gore’s running mate in 2000, and John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator from the party’s liberal wing.

According to one Gallup poll, if Clinton keeps out of the race, Lieberman and Kerry are neck-and-neck as front-runners for the Democratic nomination, each scoring more than 20 per cent among party supporters. But if she decides to enter, her rivals slip to less than 15 per cent, while Clinton can count on the support of a formidable 41 per cent of Democrats.

A separate survey in New York showed that 37 per cent of Democrats in her home state hope that she will seek the nomination.

As her party prepares to take on a President still enjoying 63 per cent approval ratings, the kind of popularity Clinton currently enjoys is beginning to create a momentum of its own.

After a humiliating set of results in November’s mid-term elections, when Democrats lost control of the Senate and lost ground in the House of Representatives, a respectable showing in the next presidential elections has become a party imperative.

Clinton is heartily loathed, however, by a sizeable section of the American population, who associate her with strident feminism and the scandal-ridden Clinton White House.

But in New York, her approval ratings have consistently risen since she became a senator, and when it comes to name-recognition and charismatic appeal, the Democrats have no one to compare.

“The conventional wisdom says that whoever runs in 2004 will lose to Bush,” said one senior Democrat, “so if Hillary is wise, she won’t run until 2008. But even if she only gives Bush a scare, that may be more than anyone else can do, and then she can run again, with the backing of a grateful party.”

The veteran American pollster John Zogby believes that Clinton’s declared intention to stay out of the 2004 race should be treated with some scepticism.

“There is not a doubt in my mind that she will run for President: in 2004 if she sees a chance, certainly in 2008,” he said. “What she has done in New York, where a majority is now on her side, she could do in any state. Don’t underestimate her."

Last week, after Gore’s announcement, Clinton’s spokesman Philippe Reines, said: “Nothing has changed; she’s going to serve out her six-year Senate term.”

But there are signs that Clinton is already laying the political groundwork for a presidential bid. In the Senate, she has been conspicuously supportive of most of President Bush’s priorities in the war on terror, voting for a resolution authorising war against Iraq if the White House judges that diplomacy has failed to disarm Saddam.

Clinton also sent a letter recently to Tom Ridge, the head of the homeland security department, calling for tougher anti-terrorist measures. For good measure, she has dropped the use of her maiden name, Rodham, which was seen as a feminist affectation by much of middle America.

If she does run, Clinton will be able to count on the political skills and close support of the last American politician to take on a Bush and win.

In a recent speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton, who defeated George Bush Sr in 1992, said that the Democrats needed to “strengthen their public image”.

The remark was taken by many as a thinly veiled comment on the low political profile of such potential presidential candidates as Lieberman, Kerry and another possible presidential contender, John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina.

“The Clintons have done it before,” said the Democratic Party official. “The way it looks right now, only their name could even things up at the polls.”

In 1991, Hillary Clinton persuaded her husband to run for the White House against George Bush Sr, despite doubts that the race could be won following the success of the first Gulf war.

Eleven years later, with the Democrats at their lowest ebb since then, the roles in the Clinton household may be about to be reversed.

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