Clinton, a popular Democratic pick for president, sticks to Senate

Saturday, May 31st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON - When Democratic voters are asked which politician they want as president, one name consistently appears at the top -- Hillary Rodham Clinton. But the New York senator couldn't make it any clearer that she isn't running for the White House. At least not in 2004.

From her days as first lady, Clinton has accumulated political
assets that are the envy of the announced Democratic presidential
candidates: universal recognition, a nationwide network of
supporters and an extraordinary ability to raise campaign cash.

She still is vilified by Republican fund-raisers but is getting bipartisan accolades for her conduct in the Senate. Her profile will be high in the coming weeks as she embarks on a media tour to promote her memoirs, "Living History," which has a first-run printing of a million copies and goes on sale June 9.

Clinton insists she will not consider entering the race for president this year even if that is what some Democrats want. She has not ruled out a run in 2008.

"I just tell them that we have many other great candidates running for the job," Clinton said, demonstrating a deference for her colleagues that has helped her win respect in the Senate. Clinton took a low profile during her first two years as a senator. Now, she is taking a larger role.

"I think all of her colleagues on both sides respect her work ethic and the way she conducts herself," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. A conservative Republican, Graham worked with Clinton on legislation to extend benefits to military reservists. Graham, a leader in the President Clinton's impeachment, said teaming with Sen. Clinton gave his reservist legislation the clout it needed to win Senate approval.

"People will attribute motives to her on anything she does," Graham said. "I feel sympathetic to her situation as a junior member with such a high-profile status. It's hard because people get jealous. She has handled this better than I think anyone expected."

Clinton has gone out of her way to work with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum on policy issues such as the Middle East and foster care. Her partners have included House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and even Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, whose husband, former Sen. Bob Dole, lost to Bill Clinton in 1996.

Hillary Clinton also has taken on the GOP. She called the Republican leaders' 2004 budget "the worst piece of fiscal legislation in the history of the republic" and described President Bush's handling of the economy as the worst since Herbert Hoover.

Clinton, who does not face re-election until 2006, is among the Democrats' leading fund-raisers. She spent $30 million to get elected and has raised about $3.4 million for her political action committee, HILLPAC, which she uses to support other Democrats running for office.

Her fund raising and campaign skills could bring added interest in the senator as a potential running mate. She has said she would not accept the nomination for vice president, but Democratic sources close to Clinton say she might look at the ticket if the party's nominee were well-positioned to oust Bush next year.

She said she would make no endorsement before the nominee has been chosen. Several White House hopefuls seek her advice, particularly on health care.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, one of nine running for the Democratic nomination, said he would like to see Clinton run one day. "I think she would be a great president," he said.

She also has proved a fund-raising boon for Republicans.

"Are you ready for a new Clinton era in Washington?" said a letter sent this month from the Republican Presidential Task Force to potential donors.
"If Republicans don't take immediate steps to counter her, Senator Hillary Clinton will continue to rise unimpeded to the very pinnacle of power in Washington, and we will see the dawning of a new, more liberal Clinton era."

Clinton was appointed this year to oversee the Senate Democrats' Steering and Coordination Committee, a liaison with Democratic groups nationwide.
She got a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. That allows her to improve her national security credentials while looking out for the home state military, including the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division in Fort Drum, N.Y.

Clinton supported the resolution granting the president congressional authority to wage war against Iraq. At the time, she said it was "the hardest decision I've ever had to make."

The vote opened her to protests from liberal corners. But that has not stopped her from being the favorite choice of many Democratic voters to run for president.