She's in

Hillary Clinton's Web campaign launch gave new-media sex appeal to her trademark amiable caution. But will the money and star power behind her history-making presidential bid translate into passion among voters?

By Walter Shapiro
Published January 21, 2007 2:30PM (EST)

The exasperating coyness is over at last. Gone are the days when Hillary Clinton would robotically respond to questions about running for president by claiming, "I am not thinking about it at all."

There was no ambiguity to the video -- shot this week at her home in Washington and released Saturday morning on her Web site -- announcing the formation of an exploratory presidential campaign committee. "I'm not just starting a campaign, though, I'm beginning a conversation with you, with America," she said, sitting on her sofa in a red jacket with framed pictures of Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, visible on a side table. On the Web site, the video was headlined, "I'm In," and her fledgling campaign announced plans for her initial foray into Iowa, the site of the opening-gun 2008 caucuses, next weekend.

Clinton's announcement continued the tradition of amiable caution that has characterized her public persona since the collapse of her overly ambitious healthcare plan in 1994. While the New York senator has already moved away from her previous support of the Iraq war, all she said in the video was, "Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq and to restore respect for America around the world." (That sentence was so open-ended and vague that even Dick Cheney might endorse it.) She also reflected scaled-down Democratic expectations when she said somewhat tentatively, "Let's definitely talk about how every American can have quality, affordable healthcare."

The question overhanging her entire campaign is whether the former first lady will be offering the voters something fresh or merely a Clinton Restoration. If Hillary triumphs in 2008, it will mean that just two families will have monopolized the White House for 24 years, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush still waiting in the wings. There was no mention of her husband in Mrs. Clinton's announcement video, though she did invoke one of his trademark lines from 1992 when she declared, "Our basic bargain [is] that no matter who you are or where you live, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can build a good life."

Just to cap a history-making week that began with Barack Obama's announcing his candidacy virtually, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who boasts Hispanic heritage, will be trumpeting his own exploratory campaign when he appears on ABC's "This Week" Sunday morning. Never before has a presidential field displayed this much diversity among its serious candidates -- with Clinton, Obama and Richardson offering a rainbow coalition all by themselves. (The rest of the announced Democratic field is from the standard white male political demographic: John Edwards, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.)

For the most part, at least in the early going, the Democratic race will be treated by the press as a Barack-Hillary face-off with Edwards hovering at the edge of the picture. What these three frontrunners share is their comparative inexperience, at least by traditional measures. Clinton, Obama and Edwards have collectively served a total of just 14 years in national elective office. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom after Sept. 11, which predicted that long résumés would now be a prerequisite for the Oval Office. The question, of course, is whether the legacy of George W. Bush (six years as Texas governor and minimal foreign-policy experience) has so lowered the bar for the presidency that virtually anyone who reads a newspaper seems well versed in comparison.

So much is happening so soon in Democratic presidential politics that it is challenging to sort out all the implications. Just four years ago, Howard Dean had not yet pioneered the fundraising and community-building potential of the Internet. Now it seems almost routine for candidates to declare with online videos and to solicit expressions of support on their Web sites. (The Clinton campaign ballyhooed in a press release that 10,000 supporters had signed up by late afternoon Saturday, but it is hard to determine whether that should be regarded as a particularly impressive number given the expectations swirling around Hillary.)

"Traditionally, these candidate announcements have been set speeches in huge halls with lots of American flags," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network. "But this is how technology is changing the way that politics is played." In contrast, the Republicans are still cleaving to the traditional rituals of politics. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, dressed in a suit and a white shirt, announced his candidacy Saturday at an old-fashioned rally of supporters in his hometown of Topeka.

What also makes the 2008 Democratic contest unique is the unprecedented amount of money that will be lavished on the voters. "I'm pretty confident that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can each raise more than $50 million," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, who was deputy campaign manager for John Kerry in 2004. Others conjure up mind-boggling notions like Clinton raising more than $100 million for the presidential primaries. By way of comparison, Dean raked in $53 million in 2004, and Kerry wrapped up the nomination while spending considerably less.

It is easy to become overly fixated on the money, since quarterly fundraising totals are one of the few tangible benchmarks until the Iowa caucuses a year from now. Clinton may be such a familiar figure already to Democratic voters that a saturation ad campaign may do little to change her image. Obama, who is still a partly empty canvas even in the minds of his supporters, may prove far more dependent on TV commercials to shape his image.

For all the enthusiasm surrounding Obama -- on the Internet, in his hometown of Chicago and in Democratic fundraising bastions like the film community in Hollywood -- he is still untested as a national candidate. While the Illinois senator may end up rivaling Clinton in the money primary (in which the maximum individual contribution is $2,100), he may simply not have the time in the first quarter of 2007 to make the personal appearances necessary to set any early fundraising records. A top fundraiser for a rival candidate said about the highflying Obama, "People are not going to want to give $2,000 to the phenomenon without touching the phenomenon."

There is also, as Dean demonstrated in 2004, a finite amount of money that can effectively be spent in the early primary and caucus states. "In presidential politics, $90 million is not three times as effective as $30 million because you do hit the point of diminishing returns," said a senior strategist for a long-shot candidate hoping to raise $30 million.

The contours of the Democratic race cannot be understood without grappling with the newfangled, fast-forward primary calendar. The Democratic National Committee has voted to give special treatment to four states that will hold primaries and caucuses in the second half of January 2008 -- Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Then, on the first Tuesday in February 2008, it is quite possible that as many as 15 states will hold primaries, including California, Illinois, Michigan and Florida. (The final order of the 2008 primaries will depend on the decisions of state legislatures.) "We're headed towards the first national primary," said Elaine Kamarck, a DNC member and expert on party rules, who teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard.

What this schedule change may mean -- and there is no way to know for sure -- is that the candidate who triumphs in the early states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, may have unstoppable momentum going into this de facto national primary. (That is how Kerry won the nomination in 2004 under a schedule that was slower paced than it will be in 2008.) As a result, the only polls that truly matter at this stage are those taken in Iowa and New Hampshire (and, to a lesser extent, Nevada and South Carolina), where voter sentiment has always been volatile. As Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster, said in a memo posted on the Hillary Clinton Web site, "The polls in these states are famous for turning around many times as voters get to know the candidates up close."

The challenge for both Clinton and Obama is to move beyond the blandness of their announcement videos to create a compelling set of issues to propel their candidacies. Edwards, who may ultimately benefit from Hillary and Barack fatigue, has predicated his campaign on a revitalized concern for poverty and the economically challenged. Colorado-based political consultant Rick Ridder, who was Howard Dean's first campaign manager, highlighted the need for a candidate to combine a formal campaign structure with a grass-roots movement. As he put it, "The question for Obama is at what point does the Barack movement become a candidacy? And the challenge for Hillary is just the opposite, since she is a candidacy looking for a movement."

No matter how long the Clinton announcement of a presidential candidacy was anticipated (70 percent of voters said they expected her to be a candidate in a Gallup poll last November), there remains a small sense of wonder about the resilience of her life and career arc.

When a young woman named Hillary Rodham ran off to Arkansas to be with Bill Clinton in the early 1970s, many of her Wellesley classmates, who saw her as her an avatar of the first feminist generation, wailed that she was throwing away her career. When Clinton first ran for president in 1992, his joint appearances with his wife were sometimes punctuated by cries of "Hillary, you should run." Now, 15 years later, she is running -- in a fast-moving Democratic presidential race that seems destined, no matter what the outcome, to be the stuff of history.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

MORE FROM Walter Shapiro