Hillary Clinton could be president, and here's how

She's too polarizing and her negatives too high, her fellow Democrats say. She's too cold and calculating. The right-wing attack machine will grind her up. Nonsense.

Published February 18, 2007

Over the coming weeks, we will try to make the case for how each of the 2008 presidential contenders could win the White House. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. And we can't promise we'll be especially persuasive on Democrat Dennis Kucinich or Republican Duncan Hunter.

First, in honor of her visit to Tampa this week, is Hillary Clinton. Next week we'll look at Republican Sam Brownback.

Oddly enough, the three words dogging Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign come more often from Democrats than Republicans: Hillary can't win.

She's too polarizing and her negatives too high, her fellow Democrats say. She's too cold and calculating. The right-wing attack machine will grind her up. Her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war - and reluctance to admit a mistake there - will sink her in the primary.

Nonsense. First of all, the Republican brand is so badly tarnished right now that Clinton is only one of several Democrats well equipped to win the presidency in 2008. Second, polls consistently show Clinton is nowhere near as polarizing as she's so often pegged.

In a Gallup poll released last week, 60 percent of voters said Clinton would be a good president. Echoing several other polls, Gallup showed New York's junior senator beating all prospective Republicans except former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with whom she was tied.

Here's the likely Clinton victory scenario: She will raise at least $100-million by year's end, and then drown her competitors for the Democratic nomination.

Money, organization and goodwill among the Democratic base will ensure she wins at least half the early contests Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and by Feb. 5 at least half of all states will have voted and the nomination probably decided. Only Clinton is likely to have the money for what amounts to a national campaign to grab the nomination.

Then comes the general election. Let's take her success factors one by one.

- Fierce campaigner. She's married to the best Democratic strategist in the country, Bill Clinton, who happens also to be a giant in fundraising and energizing the base. She may not have Bill's warmth, but she's tested, disciplined, well-versed and unquestionably smart. She's also probably the toughest Democrat in the bunch.

Longtime Clinton advisers Paul Begala and Mark Penn summed it up in the Washington Post last summer: "One thing we know about Clinton campaigns: Nobody gets Swift Boated. The woman who gave the (Bill Clinton) War Room its name knows how tough politics at the presidential level can be. Adversaries spent $60-million against her in 2000, and she endured press scrutiny that would have wilted most candidates."

Sure, critics will resurrect Whitewater, Monica and Travelgate, but most voters moved on long ago.

- The I-4 corridor. None of the Democratic candidates rev up the Republican base in opposition as much as Clinton, but then probably none are so well-positioned to win over women and swing voters who tilt elections. Women make up 54 percent of the electorate, and Clinton is a potentially inspiring vote.

If states like Kansas, Arizona and Alaska can elect women governors, isn't it safe to assume America's ready for a woman president? The latest Fox News poll found that of all the Republicans and Democrats running, voters said Clinton would be the toughest on terrorism.

"If you believe that women need a seat at the table, that we need to make greater strides than we already have in this country, Hillary Clinton is very exciting," said Democratic former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, predicting that a lot of voters will feel inspired voting for a woman president.

The onetime Goldwater girl has charted a decidedly moderate path in the senate (National Journal's detailed vote analysis ranked John Kerry the most liberal senator before the 2004 election, while Clinton in 2004 fell smack in the middle of Democrats). Plenty of pundits doubted she'd win over Republican strongholds in upstate New York, but she proved them wrong.

Polls show an alarmingly high percentage of voters, 40 percent or more, have a negative perception of her, but President Bush faced the same thing when he won re-election. The Clinton campaign knows a big part of its job is better introducing the New York senator to overcome the stereotype.

"People do have a perception of her but haven't necessarily gotten to know her record as a U.S. senator, a record that is full of results and bipartisan cooperation," said Clinton campaign adviser Mo Elleithee. "When people get to hear her talk about how she would get this country back on track and deal with the challenges today, they realize there is a whole new side to Hillary that they haven't seen before."

- The map. John Kerry won 252 electoral votes from 20 states in 2004, and 60 more votes in Ohio would have put him above the winning 270-vote threshold. It's a good bet Clinton would win the same states as Kerry and, based on 2006 midterm results, have a swath of other states with strong potential to turn red to blue. Those include Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

Hillary can't win? Don't kid yourself.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.