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Clinton joins 2008 race for president

Times Staff Writers

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made her long-anticipated entrance Saturday into the 2008 presidential race, aiming to make history as the first woman elected to the White House after an audacious and turbulent political journey from first lady to a New York Senate seat.

“I’m in,” she said in a statement accompanying a video airing on her newly unveiled campaign website. “And I’m in to win.”

Clinton, 59, long has been viewed by most Democratic insiders as the odds-on favorite to capture her party’s presidential nod. But doubts have surrounded her prospects of winning the general election. And of late, her status in the nomination race has become more clouded, in part by the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

She sets out with strong advantages -- national name recognition, a command of the major issues, a crack campaign staff and a brimming war chest.

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But she will also have to overcome her reputation for political calculation, an inconsistent stump presence and her intimate ties to the polarizing events of her husband’s White House tenure, from the collapse of its healthcare initiative in 1994 to the 1998-99 impeachment crisis.

Clinton held back from a formal announcement of her candidacy, taking the preliminary step of forming an exploratory committee. But her campaign quickly kicked into overdrive; a mass e-mail soliciting donations was sent to her vast base of support, and aides made preparations for her to make appearances in the coming days in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the crucial early contests in the nominating process.

In her video clip and written statement, Clinton lost no time in confronting two of the major questions that loom as hurdles to her drive for the nomination -- how she will reckon with her early support for the war in Iraq and whether wary voters will look beyond the furors of her eight high-profile years as Bill Clinton’s influential first lady.

“How do we bring the war in Iraq to the right end?” Clinton asked on the video.

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Although she simply raised the question in her announcement, last week she waded more deeply into the intensifying debate over the war by proposing a cap on troop levels in Iraq. That suggestion was spurned by the Bush administration and questioned by some of her own party’s antiwar activists as fainthearted.

Up against the GOP

In a message clearly aimed at Democratic primary voters, Clinton in her statement also declared that she was eminently electable and braced to ward off organized attempts by conservatives and Republican rivals to demonize her past.

“I have never been afraid to stand up for what I believe in or to face down the Republican machine,” said Clinton, who breezed to reelection in November after easily first winning her Senate seat in 2000.

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“After nearly $70 million spent against my campaigns in New York and two landslide wins, I can say I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate, and how to beat them,” she said.

The final vote in the 2008 election is almost two years away, however, and Clinton must first pass a potentially tough cast of Democratic challengers.

Her entry into the race came five days after a similar move by Obama, whose magnetic appeal and electrifying speeches have quickly positioned him as a threat to her prospects. In his bid to become the first black president, he has added his own historic dimension to the campaign that competes with Clinton’s path-breaking effort.

Responding to Clinton’s announcement, Obama said: “I welcome her and all the candidates, not as competitors, but as allies in the work of getting our country back to work.”

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What the polls say

A conflicting spate of recent polls suggested Clinton is poised at the top of the field, but they also showed Obama would be a formidable foe in the early contests, as would former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

A Washington Post-ABC News nationwide poll released Saturday of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents showed Clinton far ahead of the pack. She was backed by 41%, compared with 17% for Obama and 11% for Edwards.

But a survey released last week by pollster John Zogby of likely Democratic voters in the New Hampshire primary showed Obama slightly ahead, with Clinton and Edwards tied.

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Already in full campaign mode, Edwards has staked out a strong antiwar position, disavowing his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq invasion. His aides suggest that Clinton’s refusal to do the same could harm her chances among Democratic activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, where sentiment against the war runs high.

In the primary campaign, Clinton can be expected to emphasize her political experience -- especially in contrast to Obama, who has been in the Senate barely more than two years, and Edwards, who quit the chamber after one term.

Clinton has established a reputation as a hardworking lawmaker. She secured a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, concentrated on domestic security issues. She also has sought better benefits for members of the military and focused on improving the economy of upstate New York.

Often taking nuanced stances on hot-button issues, she has made a point of working with conservative Republicans. She joined with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) -- who as a House member had helped prosecute the impeachment case against her husband -- in sponsoring legislation designed to aid domestic U.S. manufacturers.

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Several Clinton supporters said her decision to announce her presidential intentions Saturday had been planned more than three weeks ago, with a target date carefully slotted to fall after she returned from last week’s fact-finding trip to Iraq and Afghanistan and before President Bush’s State of the Union speech Tuesday.

Clinton aides said Obama’s announcement last Tuesday that he was establishing an exploratory committee was not a key factor in settling on the timing of her statement.

Her move was also carefully coordinated, aides said, so that an intricately designed website would spring to life at the same time the e-mail appeal for money was sent out. As part of the Internet effort, Clinton will take questions from prospective voters during three nightly Web sessions, starting Monday.

“Let’s chat,” she urged breezily.

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Signals to women

Clinton took care in her announcement to send signals to the constituency she and her aides hope will provide her campaign with much of its energy -- women eager to send one of their own to the White House for the first time.

Clinton noted her role in working on “family” issues of healthcare and education, and pointedly referred to her 1998 trip to China as first lady “to affirm that women’s rights are human rights.”

Deputy campaign spokesman Phil Singer said, “This is a historic candidacy that will energize the largest voting bloc in America -- women.”

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Even before her announcement, Clinton won an important nod from Ellen R. Malcolm, the director of Emily’s List, a well-financed Washington political organization that provides support for pro-choice Democratic women running for office.

“Many of us have waited a lifetime for this opportunity,” Malcolm said.

Clinton’s campaign structure solidified in recent weeks as she debriefed key party officials across the country, hired veteran campaign aides and huddled almost daily with a star-studded circle of advisors that included her husband and many of his former top staffers.

During her 2006 Senate reelection campaign, Clinton invested more than $11 million to amass a list identifying hundreds of thousands of supporters and low-figure donors. Despite spending more than $35 million, Clinton still has $14 million on hand -- far outstripping any of her rivals.

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To raise the estimated $100 million or more that experts say the major campaigns will need, Clinton also has built a dependable pyramid of wealthy supporters. Her strongest bases are New York’s financial center -- where she can count on Wall Street heavyweights such as venture capitalist Alan J. Patricof, former Clinton deputy Treasury secretary Roger Altman and investment banker Steven Rattner -- and Southern California, where staunch supporters include entertainment industry stalwarts Haim Saban and Sherry Lansing and billionaire businessman Ron Burkle.

“I spoke to her today and told her, ‘We’re ready to go,’ ” Saban said Saturday. “I’m awaiting instructions.”

A field well set

With Clinton’s move into the race -- and the expected entry today of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- many political observers regard the field of serious Democratic presidential candidates as fairly well set. There is still some talk that former presidential nominees Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts may join the race. But even without them, Democrats will choose from an array of candidates.

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Clinton is regarded with wary respect by aides to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), considered by many the early front-runner for the GOP nomination. “People underestimate her at their own political peril,” John Weaver, McCain’s top political advisor, said Saturday.

Weaver described Clinton as “diligent,” a word that only begins to depict the habitual caution and steely preparation of a woman immersed in the minutiae of politics since her teenage years.

Path to the White House

Once a devotee of conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Wellesley College and Yale Law School graduate drifted to the left by the early 1970s, working as a House Judiciary committee staffer during the Watergate investigation of President Nixon.

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She moved to Arkansas, marrying Bill Clinton (whom she met at law school) and helping steer him toward the state’s governorship and then the presidency. During his 1992 campaign against former President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton advertised their pairing as a political “twofer.” And once in office, he gave his wife an important role in domestic policy, especially on family and children’s issues.

But her push for a comprehensive national healthcare policy collapsed and was a factor in the GOP’s winning control of Congress in 1994. From then on, the first lady was often on the defensive, dogged by GOP-sponsored investigations into White House travel abuses and an Arkansas land deal; the suicide of her close aide, Vince Foster; and finally, her husband’s sexual relationship with intern Monica S. Lewinsky that led to the impeachment proceedings.

At first fiercely supporting her husband when news of the Lewinsky scandal broke, Clinton said they had been targeted by a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” But as details of President Clinton’s affair emerged, their marriage teetered, she later acknowledged in her autobiography.

2000 Senate victory

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Even before her husband’s administration officially ended in January 2001, Clinton had made history by winning her Senate seat in the 2000 campaign -- becoming the first first lady to gain an elected office.

In the Senate, her delicate dance on Iraq helped her cut a more moderate profile, which could help her in a general election contest. But it remains a potential problem for Democratic primary voters.

Although she has opposed Bush’s troop buildup, she has not set a timetable for withdrawal and remained silent as other Democratic lawmakers have repudiated their vote for the invasion of Iraq.

Dissent from the left has created an opening for some of her rivals, but her commanding lead in fundraising and fame positions her to overcome such criticism.

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“She is the 800-pound gorilla in this race,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is neutral in the primary. “Could [the Iraq issue] cost her something? Yes, but a 600-pound gorilla is still pretty big. Being the front-runner means she can afford to sustain some blows.”

steve.braun@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Experience

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U.S. Senate, 2001-present;

first lady, 1993-2001; practicing attorney, 1977-1992; assistant professor, University of Arkansas School of Law, 1974-77.

Education

Law degree, Yale University; bachelor’s degree in political

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science, Wellesley College.

Quote

“I’m not just starting a campaign, though, I’m beginning a conversation with you, with America. Let’s talk. Let’s chat. The conversation in Washington has been just a little one-sided lately, don’t you think?”


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