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Clinton Already In GOP’s Sights

Wary of the almost unrivaled fundraising prowess of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Senate Republicans have already begun the recruiting process in a re-election battle still three years away but embedded with major ramifications for the 2008 race for the White House.

With Clinton actively raising money for the 2006 race, taking in more in the third quarter than all but a handful of incumbents up in 2004, national Republicans are talking to potential opponents in New York and already considering their second-tier options should the Empire State’s GOP luminaries pass on the contest.

“Already working on it,” Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of the Clinton race in 2006. “We’re plotting and planning and encouraging.”

Republicans are convinced that they will be able to mount a credible challenge to Clinton and avoid their current situation in New York, where Sen. Charles Schumer (D), sitting atop an $18 million campaign war chest, is essentially being given a free pass to re-election next year.

While their primary goal is to defeat Clinton and end her political career, Republicans are also eager to at least knock her off stride and bleed her campaign of funds that could otherwise give her a ready-made 2008 presidential account.

None of this comes as a huge shock to Clinton’s advisers, who say they’ve grown used to GOP attacks on her and fully expect a vigorous challenge. “It’s obviously been no secret to us that she’ll be a huge target in ’06, if not the No. 1 target,” said Patti Solis Doyle, executive director of HILLPac, Clinton’s leadership political action committee.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director in the 2000 campaign, predicted an “extremely well-funded, extremely vicious” campaign to unseat her. “She’s going to have to raise as much money as possible,” said Wolfson, now a consultant with the Glover Park Group.

And that’s what has Republicans in Washington and New York so worried. Many Republicans are finally taking Clinton at her word that she has no intention of running for president in 2004, which is why they view the 2006 race as such an important opportunity at ending her career before it has a chance to officially “go national.”

In the 2000 campaign, with individual contribution limits 50 percent lower than they are now, she raised more than $30 million despite the fact that she didn’t start raising money until the spring of 1999. Following the release of her autobiography in the spring, Clinton used her book tour in the summer and fall to kick off aggressive fundraising for her re-election effort. Friends of Hillary pulled in almost $1.3 million in the third quarter. All told, Clinton has raised more than $3.5 million since early 2001 for her re-election.

Doyle wouldn’t say what her goal is for the race, but she said Clinton would “absolutely” continue to raise money for her re-election at the current pace and much faster as the race draws closer.

Republicans in Washington and New York say that Clinton’s anticipated haul makes it imperative that the two leading lights of GOP politics in New York, Gov. George Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, make a decision about their interest in challenging Clinton by very early in 2005, if not sooner.

As one former state party official put it, a second-tier challenger to Clinton would need almost the full two-year cycle to not only raise money but also to campaign across the state and raise his or her profile. “They have to have enough time to get enough money,” the official said.

This Republican downplayed the significance of the early maneuvering to find a candidate against Clinton, but did argue that the “Dream Team” ticket would be both Giuliani and Pataki running, with Pataki giving up the governor’s mansion after 12 years and challenging Clinton and Giuliani running for governor.

Others in the party are already lusting after a Giuliani-Clinton battle, a rematch of sorts of the campaign that was taking shape in 2000 before the former mayor dropped out of the race after discovering he had prostate cancer. After returning contributions and giving money to the state Republican Party in 2000, his Friends of Giuliani Exploratory Committee still had a little more than $2 million in its account on Sept. 30.

Without naming names, Allen said he has spoken to plenty of people about the race, in part because those are the same politicians he spoke to about the Schumer race.

“There are more prospects interested in ’06 in New York than in ’04,” he said, noting that there is a “greater opportunity for success, maybe” against Clinton than Schumer.

Privately, Republicans say that Clinton remains a polarizing figure in New York after three years as a Senator. Some argue that there is a base of at least 40 percent of the electorate who would vote for anyone but Clinton, and contend that former Rep. Rick Lazio (R) ran a disastrously bad campaign against her, particularly in upstate New York where Republican candidates are supposed to roll up big numbers.

And many in the GOP believe that, given enough time, almost any challenger could raise sufficient funds. Lazio, jumping in the race in the late spring, raised about $35 million in the months leading up to Election Day and ended up with 43 percent of the vote.

“Republicans across America will want Republicans in New York to have a strong candidate to run,” said the former GOP official from New York. The operative said the idea of Pataki taking on Clinton was “wishful thinking,” noting that a multibillion-dollar budget deficit has dimmed his popularity some. If not Giuliani or Pataki, some mentioned Rep. John Sweeney (R) as a possibility, particularly if Giuliani ran for governor.

Sweeney, who has shown interest in a gubernatorial bid if Pataki steps aside, is still considered close to Giuliani, and he would likely defer to the former mayor if he jumped into the governor’s race. Other possible second-tier candidates include former Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi, who is now an assistant U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and Secretary of State Randy Daniels. Another GOP source mentioned state Sen. Michael Balboni (R) from Long Island.

And one potential candidate who would surely make Clinton spend her money is current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Democrat who spent more than $70 million of his own fortune to win Gracie Mansion. Bloomberg has encountered some political pitfalls in his first two years and will likely have a difficult re-election road, but one state official floated his potential challenge to Clinton “even if he loses the mayor’s race.”

A challenge from Giuliani, Pataki or Bloomberg would almost guarantee that Clinton would spend practically everything she raises, even if it’s more than $50 million — an estimate that may not be out of the question given the doubling of contribution limits since her last race. Schumer, for instance, has already raised more than $20.6 million to this point in the 2004 election cycle and he still has a year to go.

Clinton’s advisers said they have no illusions about being able to coast to the finish of the re-election fight and take a leftover kitty of millions of dollars for a presidential campaign in 2008. “I don’t think there’s going to be any danger that we’re not going to spend every penny,” one strategist said.

Because it would be a new election cycle, every donor who gave to her Senatorial campaign would be free to give again to her presidential campaign, essentially doubling their money for the same goal, promoting Clinton.

But the Senator’s inner circle insists that all the presidential talk isn’t even a matter of consideration.

“Running for president is not part of the equation,” Wolfson insisted.

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