Hillary Clinton Weekend Debates: No Buildup and a Sign of Her Strength

Hillary Rodham Clinton's path to re-election as a Democratic senator from New York will barely register two speed bumps this weekend as she engages in a pair of low-profile debates with her overwhelmed Republican opponent, John Spencer.

The ease with which Clinton is expected to be returned to office -- after the drama of her White House years and the roller-coaster ride that led to her election to her first public office in 2000 -- is reflected in the lack of buildup in advance of the debates, as well as the failure of national Republicans to recruit a strong candidate to run against her.

Clinton, widely seen as the leading Democrat for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, still faces the high level of scrutiny that comes with being a former first lady and a prominent political personality in her own right.

And several controversies, such as her vote in support of the Iraq war and liberal distrust of her positions on some social issues, keep Clinton and her political advisers at their usual extreme level of vigilance.

A Share of Problems, But Almost None GOP-Inflicted

If Clinton has her regular share of problems that come with the constant attention she receives, almost none of them have been inflicted by the Republican and conservative enemies who made her life so miserable in the 1990s.

Just as Democrats failed to stop George W. Bush from building up a head of steam toward the White House in winning overwhelming re-election in his 1998 campaign as governor of Texas, Republicans have done nothing to bloody or even distract Clinton from emerging in November as well positioned as anyone in either party to be elected president in 2008.

To use an old Arkansas expression, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn't get there by itself.

Clinton's political strength is the product of design and hard work, not luck.

Polls still illustrate that Clinton is a deeply polarizing figure, who in many ways unites her enemies more than she unifies her allies.

In general, though, she has reclaimed her public image from its disastrous status in the 1990s.

At a time of extreme divisions in politics, Clinton has formed more bipartisan coalitions than almost anyone else in Washington, working with, among others, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the most conservative members of Congress.

Republican officials respect her work ethic and offer words of praise that often confound their own grass-roots followers.

The 'Right' Choice

Although Clinton's standing in the Senate has deterred some of the particularly scurrilous attacks that pierced her in the past, she has replaced Sen. Edward Kennedy and former President Clinton as the bete noire of choice for the far right.

These forces have powerful financial and political incentives to make her the iconic face of the Democratic Party.

The language used about her on the Internet, in books, in fundraising appeals, on the campaign trail, on talk radio, and on TV is pervasive and personal enough to make a shock jock blush.

These assaults may wound her privately at times, but she has become a warrior who is tough and realistic about the political violence she would encounter in a presidential campaign.

Clinton closely watched the methods used by the right to usurp the public images of Al Gore and John Kerry.

The technique, which her advisers fully expect will be tried against whomever her party nominates in 2008, is to put the Democratic candidate into what some Democrats call a "psycho-spiral" through a series of often counterintuitive attacks.

'Can't Let the Opposition Set the Terms'

Yet Clinton has learned to expect the worst, and has already taken measures to head off such assaults.

"If there is one thing that I have learned in my years in politics, it's that you can't let the opposition set the terms of the debate," Clinton wrote in a March 2005 fundraising pitch.

And in another solicitation in November 2005, Clinton said, "As Karl Rove wrote in an e-mail to a New York Republican one year ago, 'We have to do something about her.' Well, I'm going to do something about that."

She was referring, of course, to President Bush's chief political strategist, a man regularly signaled out these days by Bill Clinton for his political skill.

These days, she has her public image firmly in hand.

Rove attributes this change to Clinton gaining her own platform and political post for the first time after decades as her husband's satellite.

"She got a position where she could actually do things and shape her own destiny," Rove said. "It's one thing to be the spouse of the president where his actions and the actions of his staff and his cabinet are going to shape largely how you're perceived, and another one if you're able to shape your own perceptions."

Presidential Candidate Hillary: Her Advantages

If Clinton chooses to run for president in 2008, there is no doubt that she can win.

That is not the same as saying she will win, or even that she is favored to win.

There are too many variables to be able to put practical odds on her chances. But they are far from negligible.

If and when Clinton runs for president, she will bring many advantages to the task.

She is already well known and the most prolific fundraiser in politics beside President Bush.

She is popular with large segments of the electoral pillars of her party, including women, labor unions, African-Americans, Hispanics, and gays and lesbians.

She has been part of the Democratic Party's search for winning policy ideas for more than three decades.

She has close ties to the elected officials, policy experts, activists, consultants, and political operatives that are needed to run for president.

She has been traveling to key early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire for years -- and, more recently, has been hosting important activists from those states at her Washington home.

She knows about the importance of not giving up when conditions look dire in a presidential campaign. She knows about the necessity of projecting optimism, about federal policy in every particular, about the importance of appearing strong and consistent, about how to read a poll, about how critical national security and homeland security are to the job of president.

She knows about the imperative of addressing perceived flaws with alacrity, about how values voters think, about keeping a keen focus on the Electoral College, and about why it is vital to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of both parties when formulating a campaign platform.

Has Learned Well From Her Husband -- and Bush and Rove

In these areas, she has learned a lot from her chief political adviser -- her husband, the 42nd president of the United States.

But more than any other Democrat, she has also learned plenty of lessons from George W. Bush and Rove and their way to win -- the importance of ideas, of knowing a lot of people, of building a campaign on relationships and not transactions, of voter contact, of bringing in talented people and the best technology, of having a campaign team that gets along, of meticulous planning, of learning from history, and of accountability for results.

She displays a passionate disdain for many of Bush's goals, but an appreciation for some of the methods he has used to achieve them.

Bill and Hillary Clintons' anger at how they lost control of their public image in the 1990s remains just inches beneath the surface for both of them.

Her determination -- and proven ability -- to avoid a repeat of this experience is what pegs her as arguably the most important politician in America today.

Every political move she has made for the last six years reflects lessons she learned the hard way in the previous nine years.

Every important question about her political fate between now and 2008 -- and beyond -- hinges in great measure on whether she can adapt these lessons to what would be new and more challenging circumstances.

The lack of tension leading up to this weekend's debates shows how far Clinton has come in politics.

But shortly after her expected re-election on Nov. 7, the questions of how much further she wants to go, and can go, will begin to be answered, under far different circumstances.

This article is adapted from The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008, by Mark Halperin of ABC News and John F. Harris of the Washington Post. Go to thewaytowin2008.com to find out more.