WASHINGTON — Watching Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign try to go from nascent to juggernaut in under three weeks has top Republican operatives smiling in recognition and even admiration. Her effort is ever more reminiscent of a recent national candidate with a famous name who benefited from a cultivated aura of inevitability, record-shattering fundraising and a disciplined staff who were aggressive in dealing with the press.
To be sure, George W. Bush in 2000 was not the polarizing figure Clinton is today. Her attempt to build unstoppable momentum is complicated by her party's habit — especially after two failed bids in a row — of focusing on electability. Democratic activists in Des Moines and Manchester, not just in Washington, question whether she can win the White House. Memos from Clinton's pollster Mark Penn aim to debunk arguments that she can't.
Bush's road to the nomination, while not entirely smooth (he lost New Hampshire, remember), was eased by his public image of being a "uniter, not a divider," as well as by Republicans' habit of sticking by their front-runners. And his campaign used the inevitability tactic to great effect during the Florida recount, exuding far more confidence than Al Gore and Gore's team that Bush was going to win.
Team Clinton's efforts to steamroll past her rivals to the nomination, and from there to the White House, have ranged from the bold move of announcing her bid just before the State of the Union address, setting her up as Democrats' front-line general in the battle against Bush policy, to an ongoing barrage of e-mails from her press office touting every poll she wins. (Several of her aides wrote to point out her triumph in a FOX poll last week.)
Another lesson from the Bush playbook: Smash fundraising success helps solidify an image of inevitability. The Clinton campaign is trying to set a bar of $15 million raised for the first three months of 2007 and $75 million for the year. Of course she’ll outpace those purposely lowballed numbers, just as Bush's campaign consistently set and beat expectations, and records, with his fundraising in 2000 and 2004. And in a cycle when the two major-party nominees will have to raise a couple hundred million dollars, Hillary's Hillraisers may even best Bush's Pioneers.
Now, by the time you've read this far, odds are fair that I've gotten an e-mail from a Clinton flack taking issue with some aspect of this piece. Whereas the communications shops of even her toughest rivals are only just now getting up and running, Clinton's press army from Day One has made a practice of pushing back on media reports they consider to be unfair, seemingly no matter how large or small. Again, very much like Bush, if more 2004 than 2000.
Elizabeth Wilner is the political director of NBC News.
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