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

Carville sat there thunderstruck. When the meeting was over, he walked out the door and thought, Shit, she may run!

Clinton also put in a call to her old friend Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa. On November 15, she was scheduled to visit Vilsack's state for the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines. The J-J was a big deal every year, but on the eve of the Iowa caucuses in a presidential year, it was the biggest deal in Democratic politics. All the major candidates showed up, kicking off the Iowa homestretch, giving speeches they hoped would provide a rush of adrenaline to carry them across the finish line. Hillary had been invited to deliver the keynote and serve as emcee, an honorary role reserved for a Democratic heavyweight who was not in the hunt for the party's nomination. Flattered but conflicted, intrigued but not convinced, Clinton arrived at the J-J Dinner in a haze of ambivalence. And then uncorked a scathing denunciation of Bush—"He has no vision for a future that will make America safer and stronger and smarter and richer and better and fairer"—that whipped the crowd into a lather.

In retrospect, Kerry's performance that night, strong and spirited, would be seen as the start of his comeback. Edwards did fine, too. But Hillary's speech outshone all the rest, and she knew it. As she watched her fellow Democrats work the room—pretenders one and all, free of gravitas or panache, let alone any hope of beating Bush—she thought, These are our candidates for president?

With the filing deadlines for key primaries looming in December, decision time was upon her. Hillary called together the innermost members of her inner circle for one final meeting at the Clinton home in Chappaqua, in the Westchester County suburbs of New York. Around the table were her husband; their daughter, Chelsea, and Chelsea's boyfriend; Williams and Solis Doyle; and two Clinton White House stalwarts to whom Hillary was close: Evelyn Lieberman, the sharp eyed former deputy chief of staff famous for having banished Lewinsky from the West Wing to the Pentagon, and Cheryl Mills, the diamond-hard lawyer who had defended Bill in his impeachment trial.

One by one, Hillary polled the group, listening carefully to what each of them had to say. These were the people whose opinions meant the most to her. Solis Doyle and Williams were in favor, as they had been all along. Lieberman and Mills were down with the program, too. And so was Bill. He had no doubt that Hillary would make a better president than anyone who was running. Just as important, he was sure that she could win.

But Hillary discovered that there was one dissenter in the room. Chelsea believed that her mother had to finish her term, that she'd made a promise and had to keep it, that voters would be unforgiving if she didn't.

Try as she might to convince herself otherwise, Hillary thought her daughter was right. After months of weighing the pros and cons, gaming out the decision from every angle, she simply couldn't get past the pledge. All the artful answers in the world wouldn't satisfy her own conscience or drown out the bleating of the anti-Clinton chorus and their amen corner in the press that would greet her if she launched a last-minute campaign. Hillary could hear it now: ambitious bitch, there she goes again, dissembling, scheming, shimmying up the greasy pole with no regard for principle.

"I'd be crucified," she told Solis Doyle.

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