Read Excerpt: 'Game Change' by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

But in private, Clinton appeared to be inching closer to ruling it in. Over the next three months, she and her inner circle engaged in a series of closed-door meetings and conference calls to explore the possibility in detail. Even as Penn remained on Lieberman's payroll, Clinton dispatched him to do a hush-hush poll of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationwide. (The results did nothing to discourage her.) She enlisted John Hart, a veteran of Bill's 1992 campaign, to analyze the logistics of a late entry: the filing deadlines, the feasibility of securing sufficient delegates to claim the nomination. (Tough, but doable.) She tasked her message team with devising an answer to explain away the abandonment of the pledge she'd taken during her Senate campaign to serve out her full six-year term. (The circumstances in the country were so extraordinarily dire that she was compelled to run.)

In the end, nearly all her advisers were in agreement: She should do it. Because there was an opening. Because she could win. Because, as Solis Doyle told her, "This could be your time."

But Clinton was not a woman swayed by dreamy exhortations to seize the moment. She was a rationalist, an empiricist, with a bone-deep instinct to calibrate risk and reward, and a highly developed—maybe overdeveloped—sixth sense about the trapdoors that might lie ahead.

Clinton took her full-term pledge seriously; it was essential to how she had earned the trust of New York voters. Yes, her husband as governor had made a similar vow to the people of Arkansas, then cast it aside before his 1992 presidential race on the grounds that the country's need for him outweighed the sanctity of his promise. But Hillary worried about betraying the constituents who had given her a home. She also worried about the political price she would pay for doing so. Wouldn't she get hammered for being dishonest, being cynical, being a rank opportunist? For being . . . well, everything her enemies had said she was lo these many years?

And then there was the possibility that she would lose. The Senate seat gave her a political identity that was distinct and separate from her husband's. If she ran for president now and lost, she'd be done and dusted in the Senate, she thought. The platform that made her more than just a former First Lady would be undermined.

On the other hand, the potential rewards were obvious, both for her and for the country. The prospect was nearly irresistible: another chance for a Clinton to expel a failed Bush from the White House.

Hillary valued what her team had to say about all this, but she didn't completely trust it. They had no idea what it was like to be her. Ambition and caution were the twin totems of her psyche, and she was torn between them. She needed more data, more input, more advice—though she was loath to widen the circle much, for fear of the story leaking.

One day late that fall, Clinton summoned James Carville, the architect of Bill's victory in 1992, to her Senate office. Hillary adored James, had no doubt about his allegiance or discretion—although she hadn't looped him in until now. Having advised against her Senate run, Carville was feeling a little gun-shy, so the counsel he offered was hedged. But Hillary seemed to have the bit between her teeth. I think I can do this, she said. None of these guys who are in the race can beat Bush, and I think he can be had.

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