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Clinton joins 2008 race for president

The N.Y. senator has fame, big money and a command of the issues, but obstacles linger.

January 21, 2007|Stephen Braun and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made her long-anticipated entrance Saturday into the 2008 presidential race, aiming to make history as the first woman elected to the White House after an audacious and turbulent political journey from first lady to a New York Senate seat.

"I'm in," she said in a statement accompanying a video airing on her newly unveiled campaign website. "And I'm in to win."

Clinton, 59, long has been viewed by most Democratic insiders as the odds-on favorite to capture her party's presidential nod. But doubts have surrounded her prospects of winning the general election. And of late, her status in the nomination race has become more clouded, in part by the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

She sets out with strong advantages -- national name recognition, a command of the major issues, a crack campaign staff and a brimming war chest.

But she will also have to overcome her reputation for political calculation, an inconsistent stump presence and her intimate ties to the polarizing events of her husband's White House tenure, from the collapse of its healthcare initiative in 1994 to the 1998-99 impeachment crisis.

Clinton held back from a formal announcement of her candidacy, taking the preliminary step of forming an exploratory committee. But her campaign quickly kicked into overdrive; a mass e-mail soliciting donations was sent to her vast base of support, and aides made preparations for her to make appearances in the coming days in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the crucial early contests in the nominating process.

In her video clip and written statement, Clinton lost no time in confronting two of the major questions that loom as hurdles to her drive for the nomination -- how she will reckon with her early support for the war in Iraq and whether wary voters will look beyond the furors of her eight high-profile years as Bill Clinton's influential first lady.

"How do we bring the war in Iraq to the right end?" Clinton asked on the video.

Although she simply raised the question in her announcement, last week she waded more deeply into the intensifying debate over the war by proposing a cap on troop levels in Iraq. That suggestion was spurned by the Bush administration and questioned by some of her own party's antiwar activists as fainthearted.

Up against the GOP

In a message clearly aimed at Democratic primary voters, Clinton in her statement also declared that she was eminently electable and braced to ward off organized attempts by conservatives and Republican rivals to demonize her past.

"I have never been afraid to stand up for what I believe in or to face down the Republican machine," said Clinton, who breezed to reelection in November after easily first winning her Senate seat in 2000.

"After nearly $70 million spent against my campaigns in New York and two landslide wins, I can say I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate, and how to beat them," she said.

The final vote in the 2008 election is almost two years away, however, and Clinton must first pass a potentially tough cast of Democratic challengers.

Her entry into the race came five days after a similar move by Obama, whose magnetic appeal and electrifying speeches have quickly positioned him as a threat to her prospects. In his bid to become the first black president, he has added his own historic dimension to the campaign that competes with Clinton's path-breaking effort.

Responding to Clinton's announcement, Obama said: "I welcome her and all the candidates, not as competitors, but as allies in the work of getting our country back to work."

What the polls say

A conflicting spate of recent polls suggested Clinton is poised at the top of the field, but they also showed Obama would be a formidable foe in the early contests, as would former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

A Washington Post-ABC News nationwide poll released Saturday of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents showed Clinton far ahead of the pack. She was backed by 41%, compared with 17% for Obama and 11% for Edwards.

But a survey released last week by pollster John Zogby of likely Democratic voters in the New Hampshire primary showed Obama slightly ahead, with Clinton and Edwards tied.

Already in full campaign mode, Edwards has staked out a strong antiwar position, disavowing his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq invasion. His aides suggest that Clinton's refusal to do the same could harm her chances among Democratic activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, where sentiment against the war runs high.

In the primary campaign, Clinton can be expected to emphasize her political experience -- especially in contrast to Obama, who has been in the Senate barely more than two years, and Edwards, who quit the chamber after one term.

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