Inside the numbers: Sen. Clinton

Posted: Jun 24, 2003 12:00 AM

You might want to clip this column and stick it in an old shoebox or mayonnaise jar. Then store it where you're likely to stumble across it around the year 2008, because it may prove to be shockingly prophetic.

Our latest national survey shows that more Americans have a favorable opinion of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., than of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. My own preference would be the other way around. But far more noteworthy is my belief that news headlines in a little over five years from now may be proclaiming the election of none other than Hillary Clinton as president of the United States.

In the interest of fair disclosure, let me confess that during President Bill Clinton's years in the White House, I endured occasional slings and arrows for suggesting Clinton was a more successful president than some moderates and most conservatives are willing to admit. Maybe it can be ascribed to lucky timing, Clinton's amazingly effective treasury secretary (Robert Rubin), or the politically countervailing force of Newt Gingrich and his fellow "Contractors With America." Whatever the reason, Bill at least knew when to hold his cards and when to fold them.

Sen. Clinton might be more likely to stack the deck or replace the dealer. While Bill seemed flawed yet flexible, Mrs. Clinton's shortcomings are as yet unspecified to most Americans. Indeed, in the eyes of her many followers, she seems flawless. But unlike her husband, I suspect Hillary has a rigid political dogma to which she is so utterly devoted that she may not be willing to bend.

All that aside, what follows is the inescapable reality that an objective analysis of our most recent survey suggests. Consider: President Clinton emerged from his presidency, impeachment included, with an approval rating of 60 percent-plus. That suggests that he enjoyed a healthy chunk of support from some Republicans and independents.

The reverse now applies to President George W. Bush and his own high level of public support -- he has many Democratic and independent supporters. That's likely why Hillary Clinton was wise enough to avoid this year's potential Democratic presidential electoral train wreck. Instead, she is readying to put her party back together again after Bush's likely re-election next year.

The poll numbers make a compelling case for a possible 2008 ascension to Pennsylvania Avenue by Sen. Clinton. For one, survey respondents who identify themselves as Republicans favored the former first lady over the former president. Among women, 41 percent say they favor Hillary, against only 19 percent favoring Bill; the rest were undecided.

These numbers shocked me. Yes, Ms. Clinton was a victim of her husband's infidelity. But the American public never seemed to get too worked up over any of the presidential soap operas of the Clinton years. Sure, she's very bright and articulate, but I felt certain her seemingly obvious high ambition and calculating nature would rate her a distant second in favorability to her more amiable husband.

Then again, a review of surveys over the last year or so reminded me that Hillary Clinton has consistently outpolled other Democrats in potential presidential match-ups. In essence, she's been able to avoid revealing to the general public the liberal, standoffish, opportunistic image that so many conservatives see and abhor in her.

Undoubtedly, I'll receive a deluge of e-mails and letters telling me how terrible Sen. Clinton is and how there is no way the public would ever elect another Clinton to the White House. But to underestimate this woman would be a huge mistake on the part of Republicans. She waltzed right out of the Deep South, into the White House with her husband, then straightaway to -- of all places -- New York, where many pundits were proven wrong by her election to the U.S. Senate. Now she's working at enhancing her image with a best-selling book and selective TV interviews, such as the recent one with Barbara Walters. Make no mistake: There are few acts of political magic Sen. Clinton can't perform.

So if in five years or so you come across this column, all dusty and yellow, you might be startled at its long-ago accuracy. And if that's the case, some of you might find yourself yearning to return to the days of that kinder and gentler Clinton, Bill. An alternative hope might be that this column is correct in canvassing the possibility of one relative succeeding another in the White House. How about the headline "Jeb Takes Over For George W."? Now that's a column worth saving.