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

From his hospital bed, Clinton consulted by phone with Kerry, who for months had seen his prospects minced by the Bush campaign and its conservative-media allies. Kerry had handed the Republicans ample ammunition to paint him as an effete, patrician, liberal flipflopper—and, more disastrously, had failed to push back against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who challenged both his veracity and his war record. The advice Clinton gave him was rudimentary: more economy, less Vietnam; "Bush fights for Halliburton, John Kerry fights for kids."

Even in his sick and weary state, Clinton could see the election slipping away. In late October, fresh out of the hospital, looking pallid and gaunt and sounding winded, he made a last-ditch effort to help save his party's standard-bearer, speaking in front of a crowd of one hundred thousand at a Kerry rally in Philadelphia. "If this isn't good for my heart," he declared, "I don't know what is."

Hillary did her part for Kerry, too, crisscrossing the country on his behalf in the campaign's closing days. But she felt little sympathy for him. She had nothing but contempt for Democrats who allowed their public images to be mangled and their characters maligned by the rightwing freak show. This was why she'd thought so little of Dean and why she'd always had doubts about Kerry. She detected a strain of Al Gore in the nominee: a passivity, a weakness, an inability to wield the blade in self-defense, let alone pounce at the right moment to carve up an opponent. She sensed that he lacked the hardness needed to survive the combination meat grinder/flash incinerator that postmodern politics had become—a hardness that had come to her unbidden, but that she now wore like a badge of honor.

The verdict on Election Day was, for Hillary, stark confirmation of these home truths. Another honorable Democrat destroyed, another winnable election lost. But it was also, of course, a kind of blessing: 2008 would now be an open-field run. After two Bush terms, her party would rally behind her—naturally, happily, eagerly. She would have a full term in office as a well-regarded senator under her belt. The pledge would be behind her.

Up in Chappaqua a few days after the election, surrounded by her team, Clinton began the process of positioning for the future. Ever circumspect, she claimed she wasn't yet fully certain that she would be gunning for the White House, but everyone took those assertions as pro forma, as Hillary being Hillary. They harbored no doubts that she believed 2008 would be her time.

But Election Day 2004 had delivered something else as well: a blowout Senate victory for Barack Obama. The superstar in Chicago was on his way to Washington.

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