WASHINGTON — She may be the Democratic front-runner for president, but swift condemnations of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare plan Monday attested to her less enviable role as the No. 1 target for Republican attacks.
GOP presidential candidates rarely mention Democrats in the race -- except to invoke with dread the prospect of another Clinton presidency.
A summer fundraising letter from Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani's campaign focused almost entirely on what it portrayed as threats that Clinton would pose to America.
"Higher taxes, socialized medicine, liberal judges writing laws from the bench, a state of denial about the terrorists' war on us. . . . It's enough to give us nightmares," wrote the Giuliani campaign's national chairman, Pat Oxford. New York's former mayor, he added, would stop "the Clinton attack machine."
Joining Giuliani in singling out the New York senator have been former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and others.
Romney called a news conference outside a Greenwich Village hospital Monday to denounce Clinton's healthcare plan just before she released it in Iowa.
Mocking her leadership of the Clinton administration's failed 1993 attempt to overhaul the healthcare system, Romney said: "HillaryCare continues to be bad medicine."
"Fundamentally, I think she takes her inspiration from European bureaucracies," he said.
For 15 years, Republican candidates and conservative talk-radio hosts have heaped scorn on Clinton. Now that she leads the Democratic field for president, her unpopularity among conservatives has made her an inviting target for Republicans -- even more so for those, like Giuliani and Romney, who are struggling to overcome a history of straying from party orthodoxy.
"Mr. Giuliani is looking around for those sorts of things, especially as he travels to more conservative states," said James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina.
Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said Republicans could "launch as many attacks as they like."
"They're feeling nervous at their own electoral prospects, because they know Sen. Clinton is the candidate who has the strength and experience to win the general election and become the next president," he said.
A Gallup poll released last week found that Clinton's public image was more polarized than that of any other major White House contender. In a sign of how potent anti-Clinton rhetoric can be in GOP primaries, 78% of Republicans gave Clinton negative ratings.
"She's always had very high negatives among Republicans, and she's a galvanizing figure to conservatives," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
"If you want to get Democrats going, say 'George Bush'; if you want to get Republicans going, say 'the Clintons,' " he said.
When Thompson announced his candidacy earlier this month in Des Moines, he recalled the distress among Republicans when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
"Now, you don't want to have to come back from another Clinton victory," he said.
McCain has pounded Clinton for voting to approve the war in Iraq, then proposing more recently to revoke the authorization. "Political expedience cannot undo a vote cast on a matter of conscience," he said in May.
Giuliani ramped up his attacks last week with a full-page ad in the New York Times that criticized her for not condemning an antiwar ad by a liberal group, MoveOn.org, that mocked Gen. David H. Petraeus. The Giuliani campaign now leads its website with an anti-Clinton video.
"Just when our troops need all our support to finish the job, Hillary Clinton is turning her back on them," an announcer says.
Other Republican candidates have adopted a different tone. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said in an interview last spring that Clinton was shocked but appreciative when he apologized to her for saying mean things about her during her husband's tumultuous White House tenure.
"I hated them," Brownback said. "I did -- and it was wrong."
In February, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, praised Clinton, saying she was a "brilliant woman -- brilliant intellectually, and she's brilliant politically."
"I think people underestimate her," he said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "And I think when they do, they're going to be sorry."