WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton doesn't appear to be running against Barack Obama or John Edwards for the Democratic presidential nomination.
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Nor does she seem to have her sights set on Republicans Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney in a potential general election match-up.
Based on the zingers she delivers at the debates, the jabs she throws in her TV advertisements and the critical statements she makes on the campaign trail, the person Clinton has been targeting is someone who won't even be on the ballot in 2008: George W. Bush.
“You know, if you're a family and you don't have health care, well then you are invisible to this president,” Clinton says in a TV ad that’s airing in Iowa. “And I never thought I would see that our soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan would be treated as though they were invisible as well. Americans … may be invisible to this president, but they're not invisible to me.”
That ad, in fact, sparked a political skirmish of sorts when outgoing White House political adviser Karl Rove on Wednesday shot back at Clinton on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. "I'm a little bit surprised that somebody with a record so weak on these things would somehow deign to lecture this president," Rove said.
Clinton happily returned the fire. “Karl Rove attacked me again,” she said later that day. “I feel so lucky that I am now giving them such heart burn.”
'A brilliant short-term tactic'
While all the Democrats running for president have gleefully criticized Bush's presidency and his administration, no one has done this more than Clinton has. And no one has more of a reason to do so.
Taking on Bush, political observers say, bolsters her anti-war credentials at a time when some Democratic voters have questioned her 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war. It placates liberals whose views on other issues might be more in line with Obama’s or Edwards’. And it demonstrates her toughness, an important attribute for any presidential candidate — but particularly a female one.
“By making it Clinton versus Bush, she could well rally Democrats who are angry at the White House,” says non-partisan political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “I think it’s a plus for her in the near term.”
Democratic consultant Jenny Backus, who is neutral in her party’s presidential nominating contest, agrees. “The ideal person to run against in a Democratic primary is George Bush,” she says. “I think it’s a brilliant short-term tactic.”
“But,” Backus adds, “it is not without its dangers,” especially when voters seem to be fed up with politics as usual.
In addition to her recent TV ad, Clinton also has lambasted the president at the numerous Democratic presidential debates and forums, even on questions that have had little to do with Bush.
For example, at last week's AFL-CIO forum in Chicago, she said this in response to a question on the North American Free Trade Agreement her husband signed: "The Bush administration has been totally missing in action. They haven't been enforcing the trade agreements at all."
This on whether China is a friend or foe: "Now we are in deep debt with a rising deficit. And it is absolutely true that George Bush has put it on the credit card."
This on why she waited until the last second to vote against this year's Iraq supplemental: "Well … this is George Bush's war. He rushed us to war. He has mismanaged the war."
And this on why lobbyists, by and large, make more money than many of the average Americans they represent: “I believe we’ve got to have fundamental reform in Washington. I’m in favor of it, especially after Bush and Cheney and Rove.”
Clinton also has grappled with the Pentagon. Last month, she received a letter from Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman, who suggested in it that her request for information about troop redeployment plans from Iraq helped enemy propaganda.
Clinton pounced on Edelman, calling his response “offensive and totally inappropriate.” She also said, "I sent a serious letter on a matter of national security to the Secretary of Defense, and in return received a political response.”
Backus, the Democratic consultant, observes that Clinton is in a way rerunning the 2004 presidential race, but better than the Democrats did in that general election. She is demonstrating that she is tough and strong by taking on the Bush administration.
“But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2008 election — the voters of the country got mad at the Washington establishment,” Backus says. And the danger for Clinton, she adds, is that her back-and-forth rhetoric with the White House might sound “a little old or yesterday’s news to some voters.”
Indeed, Obama has contrasted his candidacy with Clinton’s by suggesting that she can’t unify the country, due to her past battles with Republicans. “I think it is fair to say that I believe I can bring the country together more effectively than she can,” he told the Washington Post earlier this week.
But Rothenberg doesn’t see Clinton’s dust-ups with the White House as a problem given that her campaign’s goal — as of now — is to win the Democratic nomination. “I suppose in the long run there is a potential issue. But when you are going after the nomination, I don’t know if it’s that much of an issue.”
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.