• U.S.

Is This The Race For 2008?

15 minute read
Karen Tumulty

The scene at the July premiere of the new movie The Great Raid had the giddy, cultivated intrigue of a Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes photo op–or as close as you can come in Washington. A full hour after the scheduled start, the couple that everyone was waiting for finally touched down on the red carpet. They posed together with practiced ease, a pair so appealing and yet so unlikely that you had to wonder what had brought them together: chemistry or ambition? “Ladies and gentlemen,” Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein proclaimed as they swept into the packed theater, “I’d like to introduce you to the first, great 2008 bipartisan presidential ticket–I’ll let them figure out the order to that–Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain!”

That idea of a dream ticket could happen only in the movies, of course. But the buzz that greets Clinton and McCain these days tells you something about what’s increasingly apparent in real-world politics: the 2008 race is already taking shape, and the shape it is taking looks very much like these two potential rivals. Should McCain and Clinton each decide to make a bid–and most people around them expect it–both would become their party’s instant front runner, which is not an entirely good thing. In an open field without an incumbent President or Vice President, as both parties will have for the first time in more than a half-century, it’s perilous to be the one upon whom everyone else is training fire. McCain and Clinton would be running against not only a crop of other party rivals but also the perceptions and expectations that voters already have of them. “The other people running for President get to introduce themselves,” says Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who worked as a top aide in the Clinton White House. “That’s not true for her, and that’s not true for McCain.”

Clinton’s and McCain’s story lines would be set and would even have a synchronicity to them. Clinton would be declared unstoppable in her party’s primary but doomed in the general election. For McCain, that bet would be made in reverse. Clinton would have the money; McCain would have the media. Each would be haunted by another President: for her, the one she is married to; for him, the one who beat him the last time he ran. And if it should come to a head-to-head race between them? It could be a close one: a recent Gallup poll showed McCain in front, 50% to 45%.

At this early stage, part of the trick to leading the pack is insisting that you aren’t part of it. The other part is making sure you take everyone’s attention away from the people who are. As less familiar hopefuls start making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain and Clinton say they are too busy with their day jobs–and, in her case, a Senate re-election race–to be giving 2008 more than an occasional thought. Both declined interviews for this story linking their prospects, a reticence that is not unusual for her but something that occurs with roughly the frequency of a lunar eclipse where he is concerned.

Still, it’s intriguing how many opportunities they are finding to be noticed together. Their co-hosting gig at the movie premiere came at the end of a day they had begun together at a news conference. Last week found McCain and Clinton together again as part of a congressional delegation surveying melting glaciers in Alaska. And there was that brow-raising joint appearance from Baghdad on Meet the Press last winter, in which each declared that the other would make a good President.

So what’s behind all the coziness? One thing it suggests is that the next presidential campaign may not look much like the past one. In 2004, the strategy on both sides was to exploit the polarization of the electorate, leaving swing voters an afterthought in both sides’ campaign plans. Democrats and Republicans stressed the most divisive issues, dug into their bases and mobilized their most committed partisans.

McCain has rejected that kind of politics throughout his career. Although unwaveringly hawkish on an unpopular war and firmly on the right about social matters like abortion, he also has a penchant for taking on issues like campaign-finance reform that discomfort the faithful in both parties and often just his own. Whereas many Republicans refuse to acknowledge that global warming even exists, it has become something of an obsession with him. The immigration-reform bill he introduced last month would beef up border security but give undocumented aliens a path to legalization, which many on the right oppose. Says McCain’s chief political strategist John Weaver: “You can appeal to the base in a way and a manner that excites them but also in a way that does not put off the broad middle of the country. If he runs, that will be our thesis.”

If the question for McCain is whether he can take the Republican Party toward the center, the one for Clinton is whether she can carve out a space for herself there. While only 21% of Americans consider themselves liberal, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last December, 58% think she is one. Among swing voters, the gap between the percentage of self-described liberals and people who perceive Clinton as one was 43 points. Clinton’s views have always been more nuanced than either her enemies or her fans have been willing to admit, and she has been working hard to mute her image as a hard-line, left-leaning ideologue. She talks about finding consensus on hot-button issues like abortion, and says it is “high time for a cease-fire” between the liberal and conservative wings of her party. When the author of 1994’s politically disastrous plan to guarantee universal medical coverage mentions health care these days, it is to boast of the work she is doing with Newt Gingrich, of all people, to lower costs and encourage healthier lifestyles. The loyalty that Clinton enjoys with the Democratic base gives her options that no other contender for the nomination could have. “She has the rare flexibility to reach out to the center even before she gets the nomination,” says Marshall Wittman, McCain’s former communications director and now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, where Clinton is leading a project to develop the party’s message for next year’s congressional elections.

While Clinton and McCain seem to have reached the same conclusion about where politics is leading them, their strategies for getting there will be very different, given the different obstacles they face within their parties and with the electorate at large. Here’s an inside look at how the game plan is shaping up for each:


Although polls at this stage are largely a measure of name identification, the ones that have come out lately show the former First Lady winning every conceivable Democratic primary matchup, even over 2004 nominee John Kerry. But how does so polarizing a figure possibly make it all the way to the White House? Ask Hillary Clinton’s advisers, and they will point you to New York.

One recent day found her in its conservative western corner, where radio tends toward Christian and country stations, doing what every Senator loves: doling out money. In Olean, she announced $229,000 in software grants from Microsoft to bring technology to rural areas. For St. Bonaventure University, she presented a ceremonial-size $1.5 million check for hiking and biking trails, which comes from the pork-laden highway bill signed recently. At the Cummins Inc. engine plant in Jamestown, she pointed to amendments she pushed that would free more federal money for the clean diesel technology that Cummins uses. And at nearly every stop, Clinton closed by thanking the voters who “took a big chance on me back in 2000.” In Olean, Ellen Winger, 17, asked her to sign the back of her T shirt. The front said, SOMEDAY A WOMAN WILL BE PRESIDENT.

In New York State and Washington, the only First Lady ever elected to the Senate has earned high marks for her hard work, her sensitivity to the other egos in the Senate and her overtures across the aisle. Clinton has taken pains to burnish her foreign-policy credentials, traveling twice to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Last February, she gave a speech on the future of the United Nations at the prestigious Munich Conference on Security. She voted for the Iraq invasion and then was one of the first Senators to complain that U.S. forces there had inadequate armor, winning her points as a defender of the troops. Even the conservative editorial page of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post has praised her as “the unlikely warrior.”

Clinton is considered all but unbeatable in her re-election bid next year, especially now that her chief rival, Westchester County prosecutor Jeanine Pirro, has proved so gaffe prone in recent weeks. That’s why Clinton’s real test, two of her strategists say, is proving she has become more acceptable to swing voters. Although she won with a surprisingly comfortable 55% in 2000, she lost narrowly in New York’s more conservative upstate areas and suburbs. “Hillary’s biggest challenge is to exceed what she did in 2000, and it is a really high bar,” says a close adviser. “If she doesn’t do as well this time, people are going to question whether she is viable” as a presidential candidate.

For all Clinton’s protestations that she is not thinking beyond her Senate race, the re-election campaign will strengthen a political infrastructure that could easily be retooled for a presidential run. “What they are really road testing is money,” the adviser says. So many fund raisers are vying to hold events that staff members are having trouble finding spots in her schedule to accommodate all of them. The $6.1 million she raised between April and June included contributions from all 50 states, suggesting that Clinton’s entry into a Democratic contest would make the table stakes much higher for other contenders. Her direct-mail operation has already built a “house list” of more than 200,000 proven donors.

Her Senate campaign will also be a test for the operatives Clinton began gathering in 2000. It’s a group that, except for pollster Mark Penn and media consultant Mandy Grunwald, includes few of the strategists who worked for her husband. “It was part of her determination to create this new identity,” says a Senate colleague who discussed it with her. “It was easier if she made a clean break.” In some ways, her operation looks more like Bush’s. She permits none of the turf wars and few of the leaks that characterized her husband’s team; she is the Clinton who always put a high premium on loyalty and discretion. Patti Solis Doyle, who runs the political operation, got her start as Hillary’s scheduler in Bill’s 1992 presidential campaign.

Should she run for President, advisers say, Clinton is fully aware of what she would face: everything that was hurled at her when she was First Lady, only now the attack army includes bloggers and independent organizations with unlimited and loosely regulated fund-raising ability. She will never escape the way people feel about the man she married, or their doubts about her motives for staying with him. “The real question is whether to revisit the book that people closed called Bill Clinton,” says a prominent Republican strategist. “Having him as First Lady, with no responsibility in the White House–people will shudder at that.” But Hillary has told allies privately that the simple fact she survived it all will inoculate her from anything yet to come. “I consider that a strength, not a weakness in my case,” a Senate colleague recalls her telling him. “I see all those people out there, and I realize, they don’t know me. I can persuade them.”

Even her admirers, though, are not so sure she will find the rest of the country to be New York writ large. “I’ll still have to vote for Hillary, but it would be a vote that would go down the toilet,” says John Richardson, a Democrat who runs a milling machine at the Cummins plant she visited. “We’d have to have someone who could pull votes from the other side. I don’t think she could do it.”


The same early surveys show McCain is the strongest candidate the Republicans could offer in a general election, except for 9/11 icon Rudy Giuliani, who runs about as well. But to get that far, McCain would have to win the nomination of his party, where, as he learned in 2000, his independent streak is not such an asset. Ask McCain’s team why the primaries would turn out differently the next time, and they will point you to South Carolina.

That’s the state where, after upsetting Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire, McCain crashed and burned five years ago. His advisers say South Carolina is more welcoming territory now and indicative of how the broader political landscape has shifted for McCain. In 2000, the state’s Republican machinery was working against him. But his allies are running much of it now. Former Congressmen Mark Sanford and Lindsey Graham, two of only a handful of elected officials to back him then, are the Governor and Senator. “They are the new Establishment in South Carolina,” says Richard Quinn, who was McCain’s consultant there five years ago. What’s more, he says, the people who voted for McCain the last time would do it again, and “43% next time would be enough for a landslide victory, if it’s a multicandidate situation.”

When asked, and he often is, McCain always says he will not make up his mind whether to run again until after the 2006 congressional elections. But the team behind his 2000 campaign has been quietly putting the pieces in place for 2008. Last month they reactivated the political action committee named Straight Talk America, after his old campaign bus, that had been dormant since 2003. His mother Roberta, 93, told the New Yorker in May, “I think he’s running for President.” McCain’s romance with the media rolls on not just in politically curious magazines but also in lifestyle publications like Men’s Journal, in which a writer gushed about his access to McCain. A&E made a TV movie based on McCain’s best-selling autobiography as the son and grandson of Navy admirals who endured 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. McCain has another book, about building moral character in children, due in October.

McCain has pushed to repair his relations with the party’s national establishment, starting with Bush. Over coffee at a shop across from the White House in the spring of 2004, Karl Rove and John Weaver, chief political strategists for Bush and McCain, respectively, agreed to bury the feud. Then the Senator began campaigning for Bush in earnest, underscoring the President’s view that the war in Iraq is a struggle between good and evil that helps keep America safe. Says a Bush adviser: “He earned some legitimate notches on his belt for 2004. He’ll have additional credibility with Republicans.”

If nothing else, McCain’s people hope these efforts will ensure that Bush remains neutral in 2008, both publicly and privately. “He would genuinely look as favorably on John McCain as he would anyone else, and that’s saying a lot,” says a Bush strategist. Political watchers read more than a little significance into the fact that Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon, who set up the Rove-Weaver peace conference, let it be known in June that he will support McCain unless Jeb Bush or Condoleezza Rice runs. McKinnon’s move caught most in the White House by surprise, but it has made McCain and his advisers even more optimistic that the stars are aligning for him this time around. “He just sort of thinks the physics will take over,” says a strategist. “He may be bigger than the primaries in 2008.” But some in McCain’s orbit are worried he is becoming too confident. Says another adviser: “He thinks that it’s his for the taking. I’m not sure that he deserves to be that optimistic. The right wing really distrusts John McCain.”

It has reason to. Of Republicans in the Senate, only Rhode Island’s quirky Lincoln Chafee has voted against as many of Bush’s tax cuts. (Both opposed 4 out of 5.) Recently, McCain has given conservatives more reason to be steamed: just when they thought they were within inches of ending the use of a filibuster to block judicial nominations, he put together a bipartisan coalition of 14 Senators that foiled their long-term design, even though it ensured that three of Bush’s controversial court choices would go through.”When I give speeches and talk about [New York Senators Charles] Schumer and Clinton, and McCain, the biggest boos and moans are for McCain,” says influential G.O.P. activist Grover Norquist, a longtime adversary.

McCain’s advisers acknowledge that McCain is unlikely to prevail if the party establishment coalesces around a single figure, as it did in 2000. And there will be plenty who are offering to play that role, Norquist notes. “Does [Virginia Senator] George Allen become the consensus conservative candidate early? That’s certainly what his hope would be. And Jeb Bush, if he steps in, clears the field.”

No one would know better than McCain and Clinton how many uncertainties and treacheries lie ahead and how important it is to keep their own options open as long as they can. That’s why, after Weinstein’s exuberant introduction, Clinton was happy to let McCain venture towards the stage first. “After you,” she whispered. “After you.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com