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Hillary's Presidential Speed Bump

This story was written by CBSNews.com's Scott Conroy.


Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has all the hallmarks of a clearcut favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. She enjoys nearly universal name recognition, focuses on high-profile issues and, perhaps most importantly, has the ability to raise a lot of cash. But there is a massive amount of ground to cover before she can allow visions of settling back into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to dance in her head.

First up is her Senate reelection campaign. In a development that could spice up the 2006 race, two antiwar candidates have announced they will challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination in New York next year.

Former National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini and former Green Party member Steven Greenfield are hoping to tap into the party's liberal base in this dark blue state. One of their primary tasks will be to reshape the popular perception of Clinton's ideological makeup and to portray her as out of step with New Yorkers. They may have some cause for optimism in this effort.

"She has a reputation as a strong liberal, which is at variance with her background, her agreement with her husband on most issues and most of her policies in the Senate," said Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Mann.

Clinton, who as a senator has tried to steer for the center, could now find herself glancing over her left shoulder rather than her right one. How she responds to this antiwar challenge next year could have a direct impact on how she and other Oval Office aspirants position themselves leading up to 2008.

"I started this campaign feeling very strongly that a majority of New Yorkers are with us on the issues," said one of the antiwar candidates, Tasini, in a phone interview. "While this is obviously a huge task to take on a very visible incumbent with high name recognition, I think that we're where the New Yorkers are."

In Tasini's former role as president of the National Writers Union, he gained visibility as the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case. The nation's high court ruled in June 2001 that the New York Times and other publishers had violated freelance writers' rights by publishing their print pieces electronically without permission.

The platform of Tasini's Senate campaign is focused squarely on Iraq. He says that the troops should be brought home now and hopes to channel the energy he has seen develop in the national grassroots movement against the war.

"Murtha certainly captured it. Cindy Sheehan has captured it," he said. "There are various local places where people are capturing it, and I hope to capture that here in New York."

Whether the two-headed antiwar challenge turns out to be merely a nuisance or if it is able to become a real cause for concern to Clinton is yet to be seen. The junior senator from New York's campaign team is maintaining the political world's version of "no comment."

"She's focused on doing her job and working for the people of New York," said Clinton's Communications Director Ann Lewis.

But Hillary-lovers and Hillary-haters alike have always taken for granted what is assumed to be Clinton's ambition to become the first female Commander-in-Chief. Since arriving in the Senate in 2000, Clinton has positioned herself as a moderate in what most speculate is an attempt to gain red state credibility. She is currently co-sponsoring legislation to ban the defacement of the American flag and has been relatively hawkish in the war on terror.

"She's definitely pandering, and her position is not genuine," said Greenfield, Clinton's other Democratic opponent.

A well-publicized letter Clinton sent to constituents and supporters on Iraq in late November may have been more significant for what it didn't say than what it said. Although she harshly criticized the administration's handling of the war, Clinton did not say that she regreted her 2002 vote authorizing military action, as some of her Democratic colleagues have done. And on the big question of troop withdrawal, Clinton took a nuanced position.

"I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end. Nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately," she wrote.

But there is nothing nuanced about her Democratic opponents' stances on the war. They are both focused on Clinton, rather than each other.

"That's the central issue, ending the war immediately because of the damage it's done to the country," Tasini said.

"The campaign that I'm waging is overwhelmingly an antiwar campaign, so the only opponent I have is the war, and so in that regard, the only opponent I have in the race is the incumbent, Hillary Clinton," said Greenfield.

It may turn out that events on the ground in Iraq and the expected drawdown of U.S. troops may weaken the appeal of an unknown, antiwar candidate in 2006. New York's Democratic voters may give Clinton the benefit of the doubt, knowing that she could be the best chance the Democrats have to take back the White House. She remains very popular in the state and the polls have placed her so far of her leading Republican challenger, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, that news reports have speculated Pirro may drop out of the race.

"In some ways, it's better (for Clinton) to have the antiwar challenge develop now when it's not really a threat to her reelection," said Mann, the Brookings Institute analyst.

Still, even if Clinton wins reelection to the Senate next year, Tasini and Greenfield's hard-line against an unpopular war may serve to highlight her position on Iraq, which could cost her later with the liberal voters that tend to flood Democratic primary polling stations and caucuses. Clinton's effort to define herself in 2006 will set the tone for what kind of presidential candidate she will be in 2008.

By Scott Conroy

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