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Clock Ticking on Clinton Bid

If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is actually thinking about getting into the presidential contest, she had better act soon. In less than two months, the first deadlines for ballot access in important early primary states will have passed, making it highly unlikely that an eventual nominee would be able to join the fray after Thanksgiving.

In New Hampshire, for instance, it’s 58 days and counting before everyone wishing to appear on the ballot in the nation’s first primary must file their declarations of candidacy and cut a $1,000 check. Three days before that, Nov. 18, Missouri’s filing window closes.

By Christmas Eve another 10 states will have seen their filing deadlines come and go, closing off the ballot to anyone still thinking about jumping into the race should no favorite have emerged from a field currently consisting of 10 Democrats.

Clinton has grown weary of the rumors and the speculation, stating on numerous occasions that she is “absolutely not” running for president in 2004. “I have nothing to add, that’s how tired I am of answering it,” she said Monday evening after a Senate vote. “I keep saying the same thing.”

But the rumors persist, partly because of the words of her supporters, including her husband, who last week seemed to leave the door open to her running.

Still, Sen. Clinton said she has no plans to elaborate on her flat denials — although she acknowledges it is sure to remain a focus of the media for months to come.

As she put it Monday, “I understand you’ll keep asking it, but I have nothing to add.”

Even some of her colleagues couldn’t prevent themselves from keeping the idea alive, although they realize she would have to act fast.

“I think she would be an excellent candidate,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “I think she has got to make a decision about what she wants to do but I certainly know a lot of people who would be very enthused about her running.”

Logistically speaking, those who want Clinton in the race need to change her mind fairly quickly. States holding primaries in mid-February, such as Tennessee, which closes off its ballot Dec. 3 for a Feb. 10 primary, close filing early. Likewise, candidates wishing to be on the ballot for Virginia’s Feb. 10 primary had better get started, as they would need to collect 10,000 valid signatures of registered Old Dominion Democrats by Dec. 12.

Even if she — or anyone else jumping in the race — launched a campaign beginning Christmas Day, Clinton would have to scramble in the final week of the year to get on ballots in the dozen states slated to host their primary or caucus on Super Tuesday, March 2, which includes four of the biggest prizes of all: California, New York, Texas and Ohio.

California’s deadline is Dec. 30, with Texas and Ohio’s coming Jan. 2, although none of the three have complicated filing processes.

But a candidacy starting that late is no sure thing to get on the ballot in Clinton’s home state of New York, where cumbersome procedures require would-be candidates to line up delegate slates in all 29 House districts. It takes weeks of work for most campaigns to get such support.

A late candidacy by Clinton would catch a big break in one early battleground state, South Carolina. The Palmetto State’s Feb. 3 primary, shaping up as the first major test of a candidate’s strength in the South and among black voters, has a Jan. 2 filing deadline. The other five states voting on Feb. 3 all close off their ballots by Dec. 24.

Technically speaking, a late-breaking candidate could jump into the race after New Year’s and hope to win a strong show of support at the Jan. 19 Iowa caucus, the first official act of the primary process.

Because Iowa still holds to the most pure form of the caucus, there are no filing deadlines, no ballots, no real requirements for candidacy other than meeting the constitutional needs of becoming president.

But veterans of Iowa politics note that it usually takes months, if not years, to organize supporters and to get them to the caucus.

Washington and Maine also hold “pure” caucuses, requiring no filing declarations from prospective candidates. “Basically, they just have to have their supporters show up to their local municipal caucuses,” said Amy Walsh, executive director of the Maine Democratic Primary.

Should someone think they had enough political star power to jump into the race over the December holidays and create enough momentum to be a factor in the notoriously difficult-to-organize caucuses, the candidate could jump from Iowa Jan. 19 to Washington Feb. 7 and then Maine Feb. 8 — and then roll the dice on Super Tuesday.

Setting aside her denials and the logistical hula hoops it would create, Clinton’s supporters — and the media — can still hold out hope for a wild scenario unfolding Christmas Day: Clinton makes her resolution to run, files the paperwork the following week in South Carolina, California, New York and some other big states and launches the shortest presidential campaign in recent memory.

For now, some people say they are willing to accept Clinton’s denials of such wild scenarios and expect to see her in the Senate for at least a few more years.

“I take her at her word that she’ll serve out her term,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

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