Hillary Clinton -- She's In!

Is the country ready to elect a female president?

Jan. 23, 2007— -- For Sen. Hillary Clinton's first public appearance in the role of presidential aspirant, she chose a neighborhood health care center in New York that serves two neighborhoods: Chelsea and Clinton. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.

"When we named our daughter we had no idea we were naming her for two neighborhoods in New York," Clinton said.

As political events go, Sunday's had all the ingredients of the perfectly planned soft launch: a room too small, and kids too cute. With a 4-year-old girl clutching firmly to her hand, Clinton announced an ambitious plan to expand medical care.

"I will be introducing legislation to make health care available to every child in America," Clinton said.

While proposing to change policy in her current role as a legislator, the message was clearly designed to convey more than that: Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate, was in it, and in it to win.

The highly choreographed event was the first of many scheduled to follow Clinton's announcement of her candidacy Saturday morning. Despite these smooth, steady first steps, Clinton's official entry into the crowded field of 2008 presidential contenders let loose serious questions about everything from the timing of her announcement to the role her husband will play, and of course the awkward but unavoidable one: Is the country ready to elect a female president?

A Soft Launch

Monday morning, Clinton kept her focus on health care with an apperance at Ground Zero, demanding that President Bush provide funds for the first responders still suffering from symptoms generated by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"We appeal to the federal government to provide the funding that is needed to make sure every one of these men and women get the treatment they deserve to have," Clinton said.

Clinton's choice to highlight health care beat Bush to the punch, who outlined his new health care initiative in his State of the Union address tonight. Still, the focus on health care was somewhat ironic, since it was health care that gave Clinton such a black eye in the first term of her husband's presidency.

Questions Abound

Following the event at Ground Zero, the candidate rollout continued with a sweep through the evening newscasts. When ABC's Charles Gibson asked if she would sign a pledge promising not to raise taxes, Clinton responded she would not sign pledges of any kind. After the newscast appearances, Clinton hosted the first of three planned Internet conversations with voters.

Two days after she announced her candidacy online, on a Saturday, Clinton was displaying her ability to command the attention of an extended news cycle.

Said ABC News' chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopolous, "I think the way they were able to orchestrate something that everyone has been expecting for 18 months and pull it off in a way that still seemed like news, dominating the news for a weekend and going into the State of the Union, was a sign of just how well thought out this campaign is and will be."

The timing of the announcement, following so closely on the heels of that by Clinton's top competitor for the nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama did not escape notice.

"I think she was reacting to the excitement around Barack Obama," Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, said. "She wants to hold her front-runner status, which I think is weaker now than it was six months ago, so she's gonna get right to the fight."

Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary under President Clinton, agrees.

"I think that the dynamic of the race probably pushed her to go earlier than she had originally thought," he said. "So I think there was a danger of waiting too long to get in, and having some sense that the race was moving without you."

The Front-Runner: Advantages and Pitfalls

Clinton's current lead over the rest of the pack heading into the Democratic party primary season -- still a year away -- is massive. Clinton has 41 percent support among likely Democrat primary voters, while Obama, her closest competitor, trails at 17 percent. But few doubt that the threat he poses is real.

"Here's the problem that Barack Obama presents to Hillary Clinton: In many ways he's what Bill Clinton was in 1991 and 1992," Stephanopoulos said. "He's the fresh face. He's the man who reaches across party lines. He's the man from Hope in 2007 and 2008."

While Obama has been grabbing headlines, the ABC News/Washington Post poll released Saturday suggests that Clinton is still the clear front-runner. Among Black Democrats she beats Obama 60-20; among Democratic women she leads 49 to 18. But being the front-runner has its perils.

"When you're the front-runner, everyone else is looking at a big target on your back," Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant, said. "That's who people are investigating, that's who people are trying to uncover some bad news about. That's who the other candidates are thinking about how can we bring her down."

The Dreaded "Unfavorable

Polling suggests enough people like Clinton to elect her -- 54 percent. But her unfavorable rating, 44 percent, is the highest of any candidate. Can she remain viable with such a negative rating?

"She has to hold it," Stephanopoulos said. "It can't get any higher. Any Democrat by the end of the campaign is going to be up at around 44 percent unfavorable. That's just what happens over the course of the campaign. The problem for her is that she starts there."

He added that Clinton has had success in her Senate campaigns reducing her "unfavorable" rating in Republican-leaning New York districts. But the strategy she relied on for this success -- one-on-one "retail politics" -- may not work on a national scale.

"One of the other challenges she faces in the campaign is, will she be able to pull off retail politics," Stephanopoulos said. "Will she be able to shed the media circus that is going to be with her all the time and really engage people in their living room."

A More Fundamental Problem

Murphy, the Republican strategist, maintained that Clinton faces the much greater challenge of conquering voters' ingrained perception that she is "tough, she's mean, she's ruthless, and you can't trust her."

"That's the baggage I think she carries and it's significant baggage," Murphy said. "Both in the Democratic primary, and particularly outside in the general election where more moderate and conservative voters are an important part of the pie."

Mellman, the Democratic consultant, argues that Murphy is simply wrong.

"The reality is it's not the perception people have of Hillary Clinton," he said. "Gallup does a poll. It asks the most admired person. It's the 11th time Hillary Clinton's been the most-admired woman in the country."

A Role For 42

Last September, "Nightline" spent a day in upstate New York with Clinton as she campaigned for her Senate seat. After a long day of shaking hands, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, made a surprise appearance -- at least, it was a surprise to us. The result was akin to a lighting bolt; his effect on the crowd, palpable. It raises the question of how to deal with her husband in this new campaign for the presidency.

"It's interesting because I think he's a great asset -- she thinks he's a great asset, and she'll say that publicly," Lockhart, a former press secretary in the Clinton White House, said. "The president is a great and natural political strategist … and I think [he] has done an enormous amount to burnish his image since he's left office."

Even Republican Mike Murphy agreed Bill Clinton could help his wife's campaign.

"He's a tremendous asset," Murphy said. "He commands the loyalty of a lot of people in the Democratic primary. He's well known and respected. … So I think he's a plus."

Last night, the former president made his first public appearance since his wife's announcement at a New York City book party for former Democratic National Committee chairman Terence McAullife.

"I was instructed to be here by Terry, not just to flak the book, but because he said I need practice in a supporting role," Clinton joked.

In addition to the former president's value as a political strategist and incomparable networker, Stephanopoulos said Clinton can offer a lot with the simple power of his name. The problem is, that familiarity could hurt Sen. Clinton as much as it helps her.

"The Clinton brand particularly in the Democratic Party is unbeatable," Stephanopoulos said. "He's got the highest favorability ratings than just about any politician in the country right now. …[But] Is the Clinton brand part of the past or part of the future?"

The Big Question

The most pressing question remains -- what effect will being a woman have on her candidacy?

"At the end of the day, I think it helps her," Mellman said. "Most Democrats are women, and I think a lot of women think it's about time to put a woman in the White House."

But Murphy said that "identity politics" no longer influences voters.

"[The idea] that women vote for women, Irish vote for Irish -- that might have been true a hundred years ago, but I don't think voters are nearly that lemming-like," Murphy said. "I think it's a fools mistake for the Hillary campaign to assume that her gender will somehow be a magic effect that will move Republicans votes to her."