No to Hillary

Robert Novak

6/9/2005 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

LOS ANGELES -- Back east, well-placed Democrats have agreed that the party's 2008 nomination is all wrapped up better than three years in advance. They say that the prize is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's for the asking, and that she is sure to ask. But here on the left coast, I found surprising and substantial Democratic opposition to going with the former first lady.

 Both the Hollywood glitterati and the more mundane politicians of Los Angeles are looking elsewhere. They have seen plenty of Sen. Clinton over the past dozen years, and they don't particularly like what they've seen. Two far less well-known Democrats -- Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh -- were hits on recent visits to California, mainly because they were not Hillary.

 The concern here with Clinton is not borne in fear that she might fail to carry California. Almost any Democrat would be likely to win in the nation's most populous state, where the advent of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an exotic event that has not changed the GOP's minority status in California. Rather, the fear here is pronounced that Clinton cannot win in Red America, guaranteeing a third straight Republican term in the White House.

 Party insiders in Washington and New York, including many who ran the last two losing Democratic presidential campaigns, say they have never before seen anything like the way Clinton has sewed up the nomination. In particular, they say, she has cornered Eastern money in a way nobody else ever has done at such an early date.

 At a dinner party in a private room of a Los Angeles restaurant attended by eight Democratic politicians (including City Council members and a county supervisor), I was asked to assess the political scene. I concluded with a preview of the distant events of 2008. While there had not been so open a race for the Republican nomination since 1940, I said, Clinton was dominant for the Democrats. For someone who is neither an incumbent president nor vice president to have apparently locked the nomination so early is without precedent.

 As I made this analysis, the liberal Democratic functionary across the table from me shook his head in disagreement. He left his seat between courses, and then returned with this announcement: "There are eight Democrats in this room. I've taken a little poll, and none of them -- none -- are for Hillary for president. They think she is a loser."

 Talking to some of them, I found concern that Hillary carries too much baggage from her turbulent marriage and her husband's presidency to do any better than John Kerry did last year. One female office holder was looking hard for another Southern moderate who could bite into the Confederacy as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had done.

 Another woman office holder was hostile to a Clinton candidacy on a more personal basis. "Don't think that Hillary has the women's vote," she told me. "I will never forgive her for sticking with her husband after he humiliated her. It's something I can't get over."

 Eight Democrats, no matter how prominent, constitute a tiny sample. But I checked with Democratic sources in California and found broad early resistance to Clinton. Warner wowed listeners on a recent trip, though he was not as big a hit as Bayh on his L.A. sojourn. The Hoosier senator may be a dull, moderate Midwesterner to the party cognoscenti who already have bestowed the nomination on Clinton, but he looked like a winner to the Hollywood crowd.

 These anti-Clinton Democrats are not reassured by what Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." Moderator Tim Russert asked: "Do you think that Sen. Clinton would be a formidable presidential candidate?" "I do," Mehlman replied, adding: "Sen. Clinton is smart. She's effective." As Mehlman himself said, Republicans don't want to repeat the 1980 mistake of the Democrats when they relished the nomination of Ronald Reagan as an easy mark.

 Nevertheless, in private, Republicans say they would much rather run against Hillary Clinton, who votes a straight liberal line, than an unknown moderate from Virginia or Indiana. Savvy Democrats in Los Angeles agree.