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Hillary Clinton’s Got the Ball, but Others Line Up for a Shot

Now that the issue of what’s under the tree has been settled, the biggest question facing many Democrats for the next year reduces to three words: Will Hillary run?

The race for the next Democratic presidential nomination can’t really take shape until Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York signals her intentions, and that probably won’t come until 2007. But the expectation that she’ll run is influencing the early maneuvering, as her potential rivals start to define how they might position themselves against her.

If Clinton jumps in she will be the front-runner, with big leads in the early polls, a bulging campaign treasury, enduring goodwill toward her husband among rank-and-file Democrats (an especially valuable asset in the African American community), long-standing ties with elected officials and interest groups, and extensive national experience. Beyond all that, candidate Clinton would probably argue that she was the only choice who could unify the famously fractious Democrats.

In all, Clinton’s advantages in a nominating race look at least as strong as those George W. Bush enjoyed when he captured the GOP nod in 2000. But a Clinton bid would face two distinct, even contradictory, sources of resistance.

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One would come from some centrist Democrats who think she’s too liberal -- or at least perceived as too liberal by too many voters -- to win a general election. The other would come from some grass-roots liberals who think that in her effort to assuage those concerns, she has conceded too much ground to conservatives, especially in her support for the Iraq war.

Those inverted anxieties create a Democratic race that, through these early stages, is functioning like a basketball tournament with discrete brackets. In one bracket, a group of candidates is competing to emerge as the liberal alternative to Clinton. In another, a group is jostling for the mantle of the centrist alternative to Clinton.

The most significant development in the Democratic presidential race this year was that one potential candidate to Clinton’s left and one to her right each took a step past the others in their bracket.

On the left, the potential candidate who improved his situation the most was Wisconsin Sen. Russell D. Feingold. By all conventional measures, Feingold is a very dark horse. He’s little-known nationally, he’s Jewish and he’s a senator, a combination that doesn’t scream electoral viability. (The number of sitting senators elected president, two, doesn’t much exceed the number of Jews, zero.)

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Yet over the last year, Feingold has not only raised his visibility but done so by attaching himself to a specific agenda with a clear Democratic constituency. After voting against the war in Iraq in 2002, Feingold this year became the first Democratic senator to endorse a timeline for withdrawing all U.S. troops. And after casting the lone Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, he helped lead the recent Senate filibuster that blocked the law’s permanent renewal.

These high-profile positions are raising Feingold’s stature in the same grass-roots and online liberal communities that propelled Howard Dean to the forefront of the 2004 Democratic race. Feingold is fanning the embers with an extensive Internet operation that has included stints blogging on popular liberal websites like Daily Kos. Considering where the potential candidates started, “Feingold has definitely come the farthest,” said Joe Trippi, Dean’s 2004 campaign manager.

In the center, this year’s winner was outgoing Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner. As Warner begins traveling the country, he is laying claim to a clear brand: the red state savior. Warner presents himself as the candidate whose message of fiscal discipline and social moderation can win back some of the culturally conservative states where Bush romped twice.

In November, Warner received a powerful boost for that case. His popularity helped Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine capture the Virginia governorship, even though Kaine (unlike Warner) opposed the death penalty. Kaine’s strongest argument was that he would continue Warner’s direction. And when Kaine won, it burnished Warner’s reputation as the Democrat who had cracked the red state code.

“His ability to transfer his own popularity to elect an anti-death-penalty successor speaks volumes about his ability to go beyond the base,” said former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian. Harpootlian was so impressed with Warner at a recent South Carolina speech that he signed up to support the governor if he runs.

Feingold and Warner will face plenty of competition in their brackets. John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, might fit into either competition but appears to be tilting left by renouncing his vote for the Iraq war and stressing economic populism. Former nominee Al Gore, who insists he’s not interested, is also generating buzz on the left by criticizing the war and raising impassioned alarms about global warming.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson all want to occupy much the same space as Warner. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the party’s 2004 nominee, has kept himself on the front line of Democratic opposition to Bush but isn’t a precise fit in either of the brackets. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware faces the same challenge.

On both sides, the nomination is won most often by the candidate with the broadest appeal across the party. So candidates, in defining themselves, must always take care not to create a ceiling on their support (that seems especially a risk for Feingold with his dovish trajectory). Yet in a race with a potential front-runner as formidable as Hillary Rodham Clinton, the initial challenge is building a solid floor to stand on. More than any of Clinton’s other potential rivals, Feingold and Warner laid down the first planks in 2005.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at latimes.com/brownstein.


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