They made an odd couple. Hillary Clinton, former Democratic first lady and icon of the liberal left, and Rick Santorum, firebrand of the anti-abortion religious right. Yet a beaming Sen. Clinton seemed delighted to be sharing a stage in Washington last week with the ultraconservative Santorum as the pair introduced a law to study the impact of TV and the Internet on children. Clinton hammered away at familiar conservative bugbears, calling sexual and violent images in the media a "silent epidemic" that threatened America's youth.
It was a strange sight that made national headlines. Which was exactly the intended effect. For this is a new-look Clinton who has her eyes focused far beyond just better policing of the Internet. Her goal is nothing less than the White House itself. There is now no doubt that she will run for the presidency in 2008. It is more a question of whether she can win. Her advisors are already conducting informal interviews with campaign staff, and she is raising money.
Most significantly of all, she has embarked on a transformation of her public image from liberal feminist to conservative Democrat, strong on defense, espousing homespun values and with a fondness for prayer. For a public audience who sees Clinton as a pillar of the left-leaning Democratic establishment, this is nothing short of a revolution. But she and her advisors believe it has to be done if the Democrats are to reach out to America's middle ground and take back the White House.
The joint press conference with Santorum was just another step on that long road. "Her stomach must have been turning over," said Trevor Parry-Giles, a communications expert at the University of Maryland and author of a book on Bill Clinton's presidency, "but she is doing the right thing."
The change began on Jan. 19 in Boston. Clinton visited a youth charity run by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a vocal opponent of gay marriage. That in itself would be strange enough. But Clinton also spoke of the role religious groups could play in social work, echoing President Bush's controversial ideas on giving government cash to faith-based initiatives.
Then the senator stunned her audience by talking of her own religious faith. "I was lucky enough to be raised in a praying family and learned to say my prayers as a very young child," she said.
Clinton again struck a conservative note five days later in a speech in Albany, N.Y., this time about abortion. Calling it "a sad, even tragic, choice to many, many women," she moved away from seeing abortion as solely an issue about a woman's right to choose.
The idea of "Hillary the conservative Democrat" was born. That speech sparked a media frenzy that shows no signs of abating. A recent cover of New York magazine had Clinton mocked up to look as if she were taking an oath of office as her husband looked on. "President and Mr. Clinton" was the headline.
In fact, Hillary Clinton has never been as liberal as the media has painted her in recent years. As a senator she has strived to appear strong on national security. She sits on the powerful Armed Services Committee and is noted for her hawkish foreign policies and fighting for veterans' benefits. Derided by many Republicans when she arrived in the Senate, Clinton has won over many enemies. "It is really not that surprising," said Larry Haas, a former Clinton official. "She's very personable and incredibly bright. People are attracted to her."
Her list of conservative credentials is growing. A vocal supporter of Israel, she voted for the war in Iraq; and unlike ill-fated Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Clinton also voted for the $87 billion needed to fund the war. She has spoken up for the death penalty and condemned Syria in speeches no different in tone from those of many Republican hawks.
Many Democratic strategists, initially skeptical of the idea of a successful Clinton run, are starting to tote up the advantages. Name recognition is no problem. She still commands fanatical support among many Democrat activists, and her fundraising abilities are likely to dwarf those of Kerry, who himself raised almost a quarter of a billion dollars to fight in 2004.
Clinton knows the ins and outs of a presidential campaign, having fought two of them alongside her husband. Her marriage also gives her 24-hour, seven-days-a-week access to one of the best campaigners in recent Democrat history. "Not just one of the best. The best," said Haas.
There are strong signs her centrist path may be the right one. Polls of possible Republican opponents reveal strong support not for the religious right, but for moderates. The two Republican front-runners are John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, both firm centrists far from their party's Bush wing. For Clinton that reveals a potential path to victory. A national poll on March 11 put her just one point behind Giuliani in a presidential race and two points behind McCain.
She is already easily the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, intimidating many possible rivals. "She's the elephant in the living room," Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, a possible 2008 hopeful himself, admitted. Haas summed it up: "She's a rock star."
But some Republicans are licking their lips at the idea of a Clinton run. They command a masterful and brutally effective media operation fresh from two successive presidential victories. They see Clinton as an easy target allowing them to resurrect all those effective '90s ghosts: Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and the healthcare fiasco.
Bill Clinton is still a hate figure for many Republicans. It is by no means certain that the prospect of putting "Bubba" back in the White House, albeit as first husband, would appeal to many conservatives or moderates. A Clinton run would also allow the Republicans to play the "liberal Northeasterner" card they used against Kerry last year and Michael Dukakis in 1988. That is familiar territory to Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, who is likely to play as big a role in 2008 as he did last time.
What is less clear is the effect that Clinton's gender will have. "I don't think America is ready for a woman president," said Parry-Giles. On the Republican side, a grass-roots campaign to draft Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice into the 2008 fray has sprung up -- raising the startling prospect of an all-female fight for the White House. Some Republicans have warned that the party could also fall into the trap of underestimating Clinton, especially in the light of potential world events that could wreck their own chances over the next three years. "We can't be complacent. That would be a terrible mistake," said one.
Clinton still has enemies in her own ranks too. Kerry is signaling that he will run again. So is his former running mate, John Edwards, and a host of other lesser-known candidates who may represent a safer, easier choice than a former first lady. Clinton also faces the fact that Howard Dean, whose firebrand campaign for the nomination collapsed spectacularly last year, is now the powerful head of the Democratic National Committee. Dean's liberal wing of the party is unlikely to support Clinton's recent conservative makeover. Before Clinton can tilt for the ultimate prize, she may still have a lot work to do in her own party.
That was evident enough a week ago. March 6 saw two key appointments in New York that exposed Clinton's dilemma. First was a speech to a Jewish community group on the Upper East Side. She spoke emotionally of meeting U.S. soldiers, "heroes," in the Middle East. A few hours later, after a short cab ride downtown, Clinton addressed a very different audience at a women's rights conference at New York University. There, to a hall of United Nations workers, students and feminists, Clinton struck a much more familiar tone. She briskly attacked Bush's policy on abortion and said women's reproductive health "lies at the very heart of women's empowerment." It was an old-fashioned, pro-choice kind of speech. Her audience loved it.
Clinton's problem will be which version of herself becomes the accepted one in the mainstream. If it is the spiky progressive, liberal on social issues, she will lose a presidential campaign, her strategists believe. But if it is the new Hillary, a muscular moderate who is tough abroad and churchgoing on Sundays, she just might end up in the White House, they believe, returning home after eight years away.