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Testing times for Clinton

By WASHINGTON POST
Published January 23, 2007


Hillary Rodham Clinton's announcement Saturday that she is entering the Democratic presidential race is not a surprise, but that doesn't take away from its significance. There has been a flurry of justifiable excitement over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., but Sen. Clinton's candidacy is equally momentous: Never before has there been a female presidential contender with such a strong prospect of winning the White House. As with Obama, that is a development to be welcomed by Americans of both parties.

Clinton enters the Democratic race as the immediate front-runner, with impressive experience in her husband's White House and on her own in the Senate and with an unmatched political operation. She is a disciplined campaigner with a broad grounding in domestic and foreign policy. She also has $14-million in the bank and the proven ability to harvest millions more.

But if Clinton begins with formidable assets, she also faces formidable challenges. One involves the Democratic base and its unhappiness with her position on the war in Iraq. Unlike Obama, who wasn't in the Senate at the time but made his opposition clear, Clinton voted to authorize the war; she has been more reluctant than some of her Democratic rivals to renounce that backing or to call for immediate departure of the troops. "You've got to be very careful in how you proceed with any combat situation in which American lives are at stake," Clinton said upon returning from Iraq last week.

More than a little self-serving, perhaps, but Clinton's approach is, in fact, more responsible than those of some of her opponents. While this is good policy, it could be risky politics. The trick for Clinton will be to navigate the primary process on the war and other issues in a way that attracts, or at least assuages, liberal voters while not casting her as a poll-driven panderer.

A second issue for primary voters is the matter of Clinton's "electability": Is she such a polarizing figure that she would be at a disadvantage in the fall campaign? The question about Clinton may be not so much whether a woman can win the presidency but whether this woman can.

The Clinton campaign confronts this problem directly. Chief strategist Mark Penn argues that the candidate's poll ratings are strong, that she has demonstrated in New York the ability to win over voters in Republican areas and that she is "the one potential nominee who has been fully tested." That may be true, but for Clinton, the toughest test is still ahead.