Last Thursday was as good a day as any to chart Hillary Clinton's steady progress from junior Senator to Democratic presidential front runner. She attended a press conference on port security in the morning, had lunch with some eBay executives, did an event about kids and car safety with New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu and then attended the promotion ceremony of a female Army officer on loan to her staff. Later that evening she joined Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi to talk to CNN about their joint plan to make the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) independent again. Asked by Anderson Cooper whether the Lott-Clinton duet was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, Clinton was unable to stifle a guffaw. Lott, on the other hand, adjusted his coat, moved half a step closer to his partner and replied, "How do we look?"
As she begins her campaign for re-election this year, Hillary Rodham Clinton is laying all the necessary predicates for a possible run for the White House in 2008. In part to deflect the attacks of Hillary haters around the country, she has teamed with Republicans who once spat out her name like a curse. As a New York Senator, she has emerged as an outspoken booster of terrorism-preparedness programs at home and for more money for U.S. troops and better force protection in Iraq. And she is quietly constructing a nationwide fund-raising network capable of bringing in at least $40 million for her race this fall and twice that much, if not more, in the crucial 18 months that follow. Clinton and her team have spent the past year executing a mostly careful, mostly moderate and quietly deliberate game plan. "They are not," said a Midwestern ally who recently jumped on board, "taking anything for granted."
Clinton remains, by a large margin, the candidate both Democrats and left-leaning independents prefer to win the party's nod in 2008. But she is also the candidate who many believe cannot win in 2008, because she is simply too divisive a figure. Which means she is the party's best and worst prospect for '08.
That's one reason everyone in Hillaryland dismisses the chatter about the White House and talks instead only of November '06. Her last rival for the Senate job, Rick Lazio, quickly raised almost $40 million when he volunteered to face her in 2000, and that came on top of the $23 million that fellow Republican Rudy Giuliani had raised before he dropped out of the race because of prostate cancer. Finding someone to take on Clinton this time around has been harder for the G.O.P. The party's top choice, former Westchester County prosecutor Jeanine Pirro, quit the contest in December. The White House last month turned to Manhattanite Kathleen McFarland to play rope-a-dope, though Empire State Republicans believe the nomination will eventually go to former Yonkers mayor John Spencer. The best title the Republicans could come up with for McFarland was "former Reagan Pentagon official." No matter who emerges to challenge Clinton, both parties will treat the race as a useful warm-up for whatever comes next--and will pour money into it to test their theories.