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Despite Denials, Clinton Seen As ’04 Possibility

Even though Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) continues to insist she will not seek the presidency in 2004, several of her Senate colleagues said the New Yorker would be a leading candidate to take on President Bush if she sought the nomination next year.

Already nine people are seeking the Democratic nomination, a crowded primary field in which four Senators, two Representatives and three others are all vying to distinguish themselves from the pack.

But it is Clinton who some people in the Senate think might be the Democratic Party’s best bet to win back the White House in 2004.

“I think she has gotten past the scandals and established herself as a victim who fought back and has moved on to do great things,” said a senior Democratic Senator, who added that Clinton is capable of energizing the Democratic base at a time when the party needs to rebuild.

While Clinton seeks to downplay the presidential question, her colleagues readily acknowledge the former first lady would be a formidable candidate for the nomination in 2004 if she decided to run.

“I don’t know if she can [run] based on some of the things she has said publicly,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “I would tell you if she announced her candidacy it would change the field overnight — dramatically.”

“I think Hillary Clinton at any time would be a viable person to run for president,” added Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who stressed that he believes Clinton when she proclaims to have no interest in seeking the nomination next year.

“But I think 2008 is a totally different question than 2004,” Reid said.

In the past week, Clinton has again welcomed the national spotlight, a glare she probably would have preferred to have avoided at times during her eight years in the White House. Since she was elected to the Senate in 2000, Clinton has immersed herself in her Senatorial duties, as she purposely tried to stay out of the national eye.

But all of the hype surrounding the release of her memoir, “Living History,” has fueled speculation that the former first lady is testing the presidential waters, perhaps in the near term. Clinton denies this adamantly, even showing a sense of humor when asked how many times has she been asked the 2004 presidential question.

“I really have no idea. It is many, many, many, many times,” she said in a brief interview Monday following a day of book signing and casting the lone vote against federal judicial nominee Michael Chertoff, who was the Senate lead investigator on the Whitewater probe.

Clinton acknowledged that the question “is kind of flattering.” Nevertheless, she is quick to add, “But I keep saying the same thing … eventually people will get bored and quit asking.”

Still, Clinton won’t outright dismiss a 2008 campaign, answering the question in a way that leaves the door ajar.

“I have said the same thing those countless times I have been asked, which is that I have no intention to run for president,” she said. “I have been very happy and honored to do the job I am doing right now. Trying to do the job I am doing right now. Trying to do the best I can.”

A major obstacle to a Clinton candidacy is the fact that voters have never elected a woman to serve in the White House. But Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she thinks Clinton “would be a viewed as serious contender” to help break the streak.

“I think she is somebody who I think would be a very credible alternative and have a lot to offer,” the Michigan Democrat said.

Even though Clinton has stolen the spotlight this week, two of the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination expressed support for the first lady and predicted her book tour would not eclipse their efforts to woo voters in the coming months.

“The degree of public attention to this book is what should be expected,” said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). “Now the question is, how long will it last? But I don’t think it will have any significant effect.”

“She has been a visible public figure for a long time and she has written a book that is interesting to people,” added Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). “It is fine. It is perfectly fine.”

Not only are Democrats watching Clinton closely, but her Senate Republican colleagues are as well.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is raising money based on her perceived interest in running for the White House.

“As a United States Senator, Hillary Clinton has been aggressively setting herself up as the policy czar and chief fundraiser for the Senate Democrats,” reads a fundraising plea on the NRSC Web site. “We all know that she covets the presidency and is only using her time in the U.S. Senate as a stepping stone to get back to the White House.”

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