By Patrick Healy
“I’m in,” she says in a statement on her new campaign Web site. “And I’m in to win.”
Mrs. Clinton, 59, called for “bold but practical changes” in foreign, domestic, and national security policy and said that she would focus on finding “a right end” to the Iraq war, expanding health insurance, pursuing greater energy independence and strengthening Social Security and Medicare.
In her statement, Mrs. Clinton also squarely confronted an issue that concerns many Democrats: Whether she can, in fact, win the presidency. Some voters still associate her most with the controversies of the Clinton administration, and Republicans have long attacked and caricatured her, and plan to brand her as indecisive on Iraq.
“I have never been afraid to stand up for what I believe in or to face down the Republican machine,” Mrs. Clinton said on the Web site. “After nearly $70 million spent against my campaigns in New York and two landslide wins, I can say I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate, and how to beat them.”
If successful, Mrs. Clinton would be the first female presidential nominee of a major American political party, and she would become the first spouse of a former president to seek a return to the White House. President Bill Clinton left office in January 2001 after two terms marked by robust economic expansion and a series of investigation into his personal life and the Clintons’ business dealings.
The successes and shadows of those years will likely loom over Mrs. Clinton, who was both a hands-on adviser and a divisive presence in his administration.
Yet Mrs. Clinton has become a major political figure in her own right: She is broadly popular with women, African-Americans, and other core groups in the Democratic Party, and she is one of the party’s best fund-raisers and most sought-after speakers. She is admired by many independents and Republicans in New York, winning re-election last year by a 30 percentage-point margin. While she is not associated with any major piece of legislation, she is widely regarded as an effective, thoughtful lawmaker who has built bipartisan ties.
Her early support for the Iraq war, however, and her unpopularity in the 1990s have stirred doubts among Democrats about whether she can win the presidency. And she remains an enigma and a caricature to many people: Radically liberal, coldly ambitious, or ethically compromised. Her friends say that she is none of these, but acknowledge that part of her challenge is letting voters see the full her and not simply a controlled, rehearsed politician — no easy task for such a private and protective person.
Mrs. Clinton announced that she was forming a committee to raise money for a presidential campaign in an e-mail message sent this morning to thousands of supporters, as well in a video and the statement on her Web site.
Beginning Monday at 7 p.m., she plans to hold three nights of live video discussions online in which she will answer voters’ questions. She pledged in her statement to continue “a national conversation about how we can work to get our country back on track.”
Her old Senate campaign Web site was also transformed this morning, with a new banner — “Hillary for President” — as well as a page for fund-raisers (“Hillraisers”), and a series of essays and campaign memos that promote her presidential candidacy.
“This is a big election with some very big questions,” she said on her Web site. “How do we bring the war in Iraq to the right end? How can we make sure every American has access to adequate health care? How will we ensure our children inherit a clean environment and energy independence? How can we reduce the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare?”
Senator Clinton is the seventh Democrat to join the likely field of candidates who will officially start vying for the nomination next January in the Iowa presidential caucuses.
She joins Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who announced plans to run on Tuesday; former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the 2004 vice presidential nominee; Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut; former Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa; and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio. An eighth, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, is expected to declare on Sunday that he is forming an exploratory committee as well.
Mrs. Clinton appears at the head of the Democratic pack in many national polls, yet she is in a tighter spot in some voter surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the presidential nominating process. Recent polls show Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards doing well in those states.
Her entry into the race was long anticipated; even before she won her Senate seat in 2000, people joked about the restoration of the Clinton White House someday, with her in the Oval Office.
Her advisers this week rejected an idea spreading in Democratic circles that she would rush to announce as a way to overshadow Mr. Obama, who has engendered intense Democratic interest as a steady critic of the Iraq war and as a skilled orator who comes across as a nonpartisan and unifying force in politics.
Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama is also poised to make history. If successful in the primaries, he would be the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination. He is her only real rival at this point in drawing huge crowds of voters at political stops and in driving the 2008 political discussion in the media.
The past week alone has shown the ways that the Clinton and Obama candidacies are intersecting: He announced Tuesday and dominated political coverage in the media; she swept in on Wednesday, fresh from her trip to Iraq, and appeared on the network morning shows to talk about the war (pushing the news of his candidacy to second place); later that day, he issued a statement embracing a cap on American troops in Iraq, hours after she had made a similar proposal. And they are now both jockeying for donors in New York, Hollywood, and elsewhere.
If Mr. Obama’s ideas and experience are still under development — a concern for some Democrats — Mrs. Clinton’s agenda and history are a mixed bag for many voters.
Her political message flows from centrist Democratic views — or, as she likes to say, common sense: Staking out pragmatic, doable, middle-of-the-road positions that can win the broadest popular support. She supports abortion rights, for instance, but has called abortion a “tragic choice” and speaks urgently about the need for more adoptions. She supports a ban on flag burning, but would not go so far as to amend the Constitution, as some conservatives wish. She supports gay rights generally, but not gay marriage.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has sought to offer himself as a fresh start for national politics after a succession of presidents named Bush, Clinton, and Bush — and after four decades of divisive rancor, from the sixties and Vietnam to Roe v. Wade, Watergate, Iran-contra, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and now the Iraq war.
On Iraq, perhaps the most defining issue for Democratic candidates in the race at this stage, Mrs. Clinton voted in October 2002 to authorize President Bush to use military force. As is her style, Mrs. Clinton, a Wellesley-educated, Yale-trained lawyer, offered arguments for and against that vote on the floor of the Senate that day; she urged more diplomatic efforts, but also said of her vote, “I cast it with conviction.”
While she has not explicitly repudiated that vote, she has moved away from it, becoming a forceful critic of the White House war strategy and saying last month that she would not vote the same way today.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama — as well as the other five Democrats running — have sufficiently different histories and political postures on Iraq that it could be a pivotal issue for voters choosing between them. Mr. Obama, for his part, was a member of the Illinois Legislature in 2002, where he was a vocal opponent of invasion.
Both senators, like most of the other Democrats running, are now fierce opponents of the Bush war plan. Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards, and Mr. Biden have sought to raise their profiles in the media as war critics, giving speeches and interviews about Iraq and, after Mr. Bush’s address to the nation last week, appearing on news outlets to criticize him.
Mrs. Clinton is a more cautious politician, preternaturally so, and she does not gravitate toward the cameras; they gravitate toward her. She did not appear on television after the president’s speech; instead she went to Iraq to hear from military commanders, a means of fashioning and updating her views on the war.
That careful, deliberate style impresses some Democrats but irritates and deflates many others: She tends to tweak her views and her rhetorical nuances to position herself in the center of most issues, leaving an uninspired impression for some. Political analysts say she is neither a firebrand nor a stem-winder in public, though privately she can be sharply opinionated, outspoken, sarcastic, and funny. Part of the challenge for the Clinton campaign will be showing the different facets of her personality to voters and humanizing her for those who find her too polarizing, too calculating or too moderate.
Indeed, she is already the most overly scrutinized politician in America — from her political positions to her wardrobe and hairstyles — and she is careful and sensitive about her public profile. She has worked hard in the Senate to form alliances with Republicans, including some of those who sought to remove her husband from office in 1999 after it was revealed that he had tried to hide information about his extramarital affair with a White House intern, Ms. Lewinsky.
Some of her friends chide her for still being the “Goldwater girl” of her youth, growing up in a Republican household in the Chicago suburbs. Advisers say that she is not predisposed to risk, but rather pursues “evidence based decision-making” — a favorite phrase of hers — and avoiding the appearance of suddenly changing her positions or seeming indecisive.
Indeed, most of her life in politics and the law was devoted to methodical, behind-the-scenes work: After attending Yale Law School, where she met Mr. Clinton, she worked on the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation of President Richard M. Nixon. She then moved to Arkansas and married Mr. Clinton, and she became his political partner and a senior policy adviser when he was governor there.
After her husband’s election as president in 1992, Mrs. Clinton took on the role of crafting and shepherding his administration’s massive proposal for universal health insurance. But the complexity of the proposal, and the secrecy of the White House deliberations, sapped support among members of Congress, and Mrs. Clinton — while praised for some of her public presentations — shared the blame when the plan collapsed. (She jokes now about still bearing the “scars” from that experience, and she has favored incremental policy ideas to expand health care.)
Mrs. Clinton has said that she is a far better lawmaker and politician today because of her experiences and lessons during the White House years. Yet it is unclear how difficult it will be to persuade Americans to see her in a fresh light and give her a full hearing, given that she is so well known and that voters’ attitudes about her are so firmly shaped at this point.
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