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updated 8/16/2007 12:57:18 PM ET 2007-08-16T16:57:18
ANALYSIS

Is the vast right-wing conspiracy trying to help Hillary Rodham Clinton win the Democratic nomination?

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Leading her Democratic rivals by double digits in recent national polls, Clinton's campaign has benefited from several key factors over the past seven months: strong performances at debates, stumbles by rivals and solid fundraising. Recently, however, she's drawing a bounce from an unlikely source: conservative Republicans, whose fears of a Democratic takeover are forcing them to mount a risky venture.

Divided and discouraged by a GOP field they view as lackluster, they've concluded that the best way to energize party activists, hold the White House and, possibly, return to power on Capitol Hill, is to help Clinton secure the Democratic nod and become her party's most dominant voice.

Even the White House is getting into the act.

This week, for example, a White House spokeswoman uncharacteristically fired back at Clinton for, of all things, running a campaign ad in Iowa that (gasp!) criticizes President Bush. "If you're a family that is struggling and you don't have health care, you are invisible to this president," Clinton says in the ad. "If you're a single mom trying to find affordable child care so you can go to work, you're invisible, too."

Spokeswoman Dana Perino took the bait, dubbing Clinton's ad "outrageous," "absurd" and "unconscionable." Video: Karl Rove's parting shot at Hillary Clinton

Campaigning in Iowa, her most challenging early state, a "thrilled" Clinton heralded the White House response. "The White House just attacked me a few minutes ago," she gushed. "Apparently, I've struck a nerve." Clinton aides quickly flagged the White House comments on a campaign Web site, www.HillaryHub.com, and alerted reporters to Perino's remarks. (The media ate it up; Check out this over-the-top graphic from the New York Post.)

Perino is, of course, hardly the only member of Bush's inner circle to help Clinton win over reluctant Democrats.

In his interview last Saturday with the Wall Street Journal, outgoing White House adviser Karl Rove called Clinton "a tough, tenacious, fatally flawed candidate," who is nonetheless likely to win the Democratic nod. Ever disciplined, Rove repeated his comments in media interviews throughout the week. "Any rational observer would have to say that Hillary Clinton is a prohibitive favorite to win the nomination," he told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday. In an interview with the Politico, he explained why he believes Clinton will prevail. "She's strong and she's got the establishment of the Democratic Party, and she benefits from having relatively weak or inexperienced opponents."

Rove intensified his Clinton critique Wednesday, giving high-profile interviews to Rush Limbaugh and Reuters. "Look, she is who she is," he said on Limbaugh's radio show. "There is no front-runner who has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has in the history of modern polling. She's going into the general election with, depending on what poll you look at, in the high 40s on the negative side and just below that on the positive side. And there's nobody who has ever won the presidency who started out in that kind of position."

Clinton, for her part, is loving every minute of it. "I feel so lucky that I am now giving them such heartburn," she said Wednesday at a labor forum in Iowa. Just last week, she told a similar group of union activists in Chicago that she's their "girl" because she's emerged stronger after 15 years of attacks from the "right-wing machine."

Other efforts by administration officials outside the political confines of the White House have also helped Clinton solidify support within her party's base. Last month, the Pentagon rebuked the senator after she requested an outline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq," Undersecretary for Defense Eric Edelman wrote in a highly publicized letter [PDF].

While Defense Secretary Robert Gates later apologized to Clinton, Edelman's move drew support from Vice President Cheney. "I thought it was a good letter," Cheney said.

In another recent move that both boosted Clinton and discredited her main rival, Bush dealt swiftly with an international situation Barack Obama created when the Illinois senator declared he'd send U.S. troops into Pakistan as president if he believed terrorists were being harbored there. The move cast doubt on Obama's suitability as a global leader while lending Clinton the air of credibility.

Republicans' efforts come as some Democrats in red states increasingly express anxiety about Clinton winning their party's nomination. "In some of these red states, she's so damn unpopular," Andy Arnold, chairman of the Greenville, S.C., Democratic Party, told the AP. "Hillary is someone who could drive folks on the other side out to vote who otherwise wouldn't.... Republicans are upset with their candidates, but she will make up for that by essentially scaring folks to the polls."

All of which explains why Obama decided this week to unveil the blueprint for his fall campaign, one in which he portrays himself as far better equipped to bridge the country's partisan divide than Clinton. "I believe I can bring the country together more effectively than she can," he told the Washington Post.

Obama may be more capable of uniting the country. But so far, Clinton is doing a better job of bringing together Democrats. And, for that matter, Republicans. And in primary campaigns like the ones they're waging, that's really all that matters.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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