Hillary Rodham Clinton has not said whether she will run for president in… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — It sounds like a bad joke from an old comedy routine. Question: How do you take on Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination? Answer: Very carefully.
Clinton is almost universally popular among Democrats as they look ahead to the 2016 race, with memories of her strong 2008 campaign enhanced by her work as secretary of State. If she runs again, she'll have the most money in the bank, an experienced organization at her back and the emotional advantage of trying to finally achieve what many voters consider a long-overdue goal: the election of the first female president.
"Here's a woman who's been working 60-70 hours a week for the last four years, on some of the most difficult, complicated challenges we've had," said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, often talked about as a 2016 Democratic contender himself, despite his denials of interest. "I think it would be very difficult to attack her."
At this stage, it isn't clear that anyone of stature will try. Just by announcing her candidacy, the governor predicted, "she'd clear a significant part of the field."
An analysis of presidential polling shows that Clinton is in a stronger position than any non-incumbent Democrat of the modern era at this stage of the process. Her lead over potential rivals in polls, so far, exceeds Al Gore's before the 2000 campaign, when he easily gained the nomination as a sitting vice president. What makes Clinton's advantage even more impressive is that her nearest competitor in the early polls is currently the sitting vice president, Joe Biden.
There are other reasons to think that Democrats may have only a token nomination campaign were Clinton to run. The notoriously fractious party is more unified than at any time in decades. Differences over economic, cultural and national security policy are muted, if they exist at all. That absence of internal divisions would make it more difficult to assemble a coalition against Clinton. By comparison, in the bitterly fought 2008 race, Clinton's support for the Iraq war presented a clear contrast with Barack Obama on an issue that divided and disconcerted Democrats.
Still, despite a recent surge in speculation that Clinton will be a candidate, the campaign is at least 18 months away. Seeds of internal dissension may already be germinating over issues such as the environment or government spending on social programs. Clinton's age — she would turn 69 in 2016 — could help spark a generational fight for leadership of the party.
Veteran strategists warn against premature predictions. Often, the strongest potential candidate becomes much less invincible after the race begins. Although polls show that Clinton is even more popular today than she was going into the 2008 contest, it's worth remembering that she was a heavy favorite then, too.
Clinton isn't expected to make an announcement before next year's midterm election, but her health is considered the most likely barrier to another campaign. She was sidelined for weeks in December by a blood clot in a vein near her brain, brought on, her aides said, when she struck her head after fainting. Biden, the only other prospective first-tier Democrat, is already positioning himself for a 2016 run, though party strategists strongly doubt that he'd oppose her. Far behind is an assortment of governors and senators, none of whom has an established national presence.
But even a prohibitive favorite must go through the primaries. And that could create an opportunity for other ambitious Democrats.
"Securing the Democratic presidential nomination in the post-Obama era might be a far different proposition than it looks like today," said Donna Brazile, a manager of the 2000 Gore campaign. For politicians with White House ambitions, 2016 will be "a great time to position yourself and help rebrand the Democratic Party," she said.
She and other strategists play down the significance of claims, no doubt fanned by Clinton supporters, that major donors will stay parked on the sidelines until Clinton reveals her intentions. "There's a lot of money out there," Brazile said, pointing out that Obama relied on small donors to get his 2008 campaign off the ground and that his organization "morphed into one of the greatest machines ever."
"The fact of the matter is, it's going to be Hillary versus somebody, if she runs," said Joe Trippi, who helped manage former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "The first problem is, how do you emerge as the other person in the race? If you're thinking about 2016, now is the time."