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Lack of Rival Boosts Clinton

State and national Republicans are increasingly worried that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) will lack serious opposition in her 2006 re-election bid, providing her with a potent springboard for a presidential run two years later.

Neither former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani nor New York Governor George Pataki — the two most logical candidates on the Republican side — seems interested in challenging the cash-flush Clinton, preferring to focus on his own national ambition.

Without Giuliani or Pataki in the contest, the field of potential candidates ranges from an obscure public-relations executive named Adam Brecht to the always-mentioned Rep. Peter King to conservative talk radio personality Sean Hannity — none of whom would be expected to give Clinton much of a race.

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster based in New York, said that if Clinton is left uncontested in 2006, “it is only going to help the Democrats. She would rather not have a real opponent, and save her money for other things.”

One senior Republican strategist pointed out that, given Clinton’s fundraising potential and her ambitions for higher office, if she does not face a serious race in 2006, “someone is asleep at the switch.”

Despite a pledge in late 2003 from then-National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) that he was already working on recruiting a challenger to Clinton, there appears to be little or no official effort at either the state or national level to rally around a single GOP candidate.

“Sen. Clinton is certainly not invulnerable, so we’re hopeful that a prominent Republican jumps into this race,” argued NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. “It certainly would be a great way for someone to put together a national fundraising list, raise their profile with the base, and possibly become an overnight hero.”

It’s not surprising that Clinton’s fundraising ability and national profile have scared off top-tier GOP challengers. But several Republicans interviewed for this story pointed out that there are major negative consequences tied to leaving Clinton without a real opponent in 2006.

Not only does it give the Senator two more years to build the necessary infrastructure for a presidential bid, but it also frees her to raise money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other candidates facing tough races in 2006.

While Clinton herself remains a highly controversial figure in many states where Senate Democrats are endangered in 2006, she could still raise money for the DSCC in more friendly territory. This money could be filtered through the DSCC to aid at-risk candidates, enabling her to collect chits for her presidential bid in a low-profile way.

In 2000, Clinton raised upwards of $41 million for her open-seat candidacy, not to mention the millions of hard and soft dollars she brought in to the DSCC. That massive infusion of dollars allowed the organization to outraise the NRSC in that cycle by more than $8 million.

When asked whether she would attempt to repeat that effort in 2006, Clinton demurred.

“I am just now starting to pay attention to my race,” said Clinton, adding that she would do “whatever [DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer] asks me to do.”

Schumer (N.Y.), for his part, said he expected Clinton to be a major asset, but would not elaborate on any discussions the two have had about the specific role she will play.

Without a doubt, Clinton is the among the premier fundraising draws on the Democratic side, eclipsed only by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Moreover, the former first lady has shown a willingness to use her popularity among the Democratic donors to help other candidates. She’s done this by contributing heavily from HILLPAC, her leadership political action committee.

In the 2004 cycle, Clinton raised more than $2.5 million through HILLPAC and donated nearly $415,000 to candidates and the DSCC. Through Friends of Hillary, her Senate campaign committee, she donated an additional $100,000 to the DSCC.

Beyond direct contributions, Clinton allies estimate that she raised approximately $25 million for Democrats in the 2004 cycle alone.

Clinton has brought in more than $11.3 million through her campaign committee since 2001, including more than $1 million from Oct.1 to Dec. 31, according to reports filed late last week with the Secretary of the Senate.

Clinton’s fundraising total in the last reporting period was more than twice what any of the other 32 Senators up for re-election in 2006 managed to raise.

Former DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) called Clinton “a tremendous asset to the Democratic Caucus,” adding: “Her voice is one that people respect and want to hear.”

One senior Democratic Senate aide was more blunt, calling Clinton a “cash cow.”

That sentiment was echoed by Allen, who chaired the NRSC during the 2004 cycle.

Allen said that “no one was a bigger draw to raise a lot of money for their side,” but he also pointed out that Republicans used Clinton’s “name and the specter of having her in the majority” to raise large sums of cash for the GOP.

While Republicans are likely to use Clinton again in their fundraising appeals, it is not likely that they will be able to match her fundraising prowess, one knowledgeable party insider acknowledged.

“We don’t have a Republican Senator who can raise $40 million,” said the source. “She gives Democrats a separate fundraising mechanism.”

Back in New York, Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long urged attention be paid to the presidential implications of the 2006 New York Senate race.

“We need a serious candidate against her to clarify the differences for 2008,” said Long. “Ultimately she is running the next time around for 2008.”

Clinton has repeatedly contended that all of her focus is on winning re-election in two years’ time, not on a potential presidential bid.

That denial hasn’t stopped the churning of the rumor mill that places Clinton, at least at this early stage, atop a 2008 Democratic field that could include Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), among others.

In the event that Clinton faces no serious re-election challenge and is able to conserve the millions she raises into her campaign account, she would be allowed to transfer her entire war chest into a presidential account. At the end of 2004, Clinton had $5.5 million on hand.

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