Video: Up close and personal with Hillary

updated 10/12/2007 8:23:11 AM ET 2007-10-12T12:23:11

Rudy Giuliani has apparently already chosen his running mate. So has Mitt Romney and, for that matter, most of the Democratic candidates for president. It's Hillary Rodham Clinton. But they're not running with her. They're running against her, and lately they've been running hard.

It's a rare confluence of strategy from a diverse field of candidates -- an uncoordinated, yet bipartisan effort that targets just one boogey(wo)man, but for a variety of reasons and with vastly different intended outcomes. In this exercise, Clinton has become a political Rorschach test, the embodiment of whatever negatives her critics want voters to perceive. For Republicans, she's a radical liberal who would socialize health care and drive the nation into bankruptcy. To Democrats, she's a spineless hawk who would put the country on a fast track to invading Iran.

For candidates in both parties, she's the polarizing polarizer, the nominee for whom one-third of the nation would never vote, under any circumstances. And for the next 390 days, barring dramatic twists or turns, that subtext (Clinton challenging it, as she did in a Washington Post interview this week; her rivals reinforcing it) will remain a prominent part of the 2008 discourse.

Ultimately, however, the critiques may say more about Clinton's opponents than they do about her.

The most aggressive practitioner of the latest chapter of Hillary-hating is, of course, Giuliani, who mentioned the senator (or "Hillary") eight times Tuesday during a two-hour debate in Michigan. (He mentioned her husband three times.) Indeed, Giuliani used almost every opening to lob a lowball at the Democratic front-runner: She's "filled with endless ways to spend," is an "economist pessimist," and was evasive on Iran. And, of course, a President Hillary would try to replace America's health care system with (wait for it...) "Hillarycare."

For Giuliani, the ploy is (almost) foolproof. Every time he attacks Clinton, he simultaneously targets both conservatives and Democratic partisans. At the same time he's trying to motivate her conservative critics to back him in the primary, he's helping Clinton solidify her front-runner status among Democrats, who view such attacks as reminders of the partisan battle scars she bears.

He's also making the argument, with increasing frequency, that he's the Republican most able to beat Clinton -- a claim he backs up with new poll numbers. According to a late September NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, Giuliani ranked far ahead of his GOP rivals as the Republican with the best chance to defeat Clinton; he took 47 percent, compared to 16 percent for Fred Thompson, 14 percent for John McCainand 8 percent for Romney. (Also, a series of new Quinnipiac polls shows Clinton and Giuliani locked in tight races in the key states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, although Clinton holds small leads in each state.)

The only flaw in Giuliani's case that he'd prevail over Clinton in 2008 is, well, history. The last time he faced her, in the 2000 Senate race in New York, Giuliani famously blinked first. Citing health and marital woes, he withdrew from the race, paving the way for Clinton's decisive win. There are much higher stakes at play here, but has Giuliani fully satisfied Republicans' concerns that he's up for the challenge?

Romney, who still must train most of his energies on derailing Giuliani's lead in national polls -- and his recent momentum in the early states, where the former New York City mayor hasn't spent a dime on paid TV ads -- has tried from the beginning to create a self-fulfilling sense of momentum and viability for his campaign. From the well-choreographed $6 million fundraising dog-and-pony show he staged in Boston earlier this year to his dramatic overtures to the conservative base, Romney is hoping to convince voters that he's a viable front-runner. A key part of doing so, aides say, is rising above the din of the GOP discourse, cast a forward-looking gaze across the aisle and toss a shot at Clinton.

Romney also is increasingly criticizing Clinton's health care plan in order to fend off critiques from conservatives that it resembles the one he implemented in Massachusetts.

Democrats, meanwhile, are engaged in an entirely different game. And they're drawing a far different response from their party's front-runner.

While Barack Obamaand John Edwards, among others, have ratcheted up their critiques of Clinton's anti-war creds this week, the front-runner is touring Iowa in a yellow school bus talking about 401(k) plans and trade policy. Yet she continues to see her poll numbers improve, both nationally and in early state polls. The war is still Democratic voters' top priority, but her willingness to refrain from an aggressive defense suggests it may have lost some of its punch as a campaign issue.

The more Democratic hopefuls try to distinguish themselves on Iraq, the murkier their differences look. But as Edwards learned on " Meet the Press ," the more you try to focus on contrasts, the more your own consistency on the issue can be raised. Domestic issues have seen a huge jump in interest among Democratic voters, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll. But while this can be traced to candidates' new focus on health care, especially coverage of Clinton's plan, it may also reflect Democrats' concern that the war is overshadowing other big issues.

More importantly, as bills to withdraw troops from Iraq continue to languish on Capitol Hill, do differences mean much to Democratic voters if they no longer believe anything ultimately will change?

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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