Hillary Clinton might be losing Democratic voters to Barack Obama, but she has a stalwart cheering section that won't abandon her even as she slips in the polls: Republicans nearly everywhere.
Bill's relationship to Hillary is blissfully straightforward compared with that of Republicans. They hate her, and they love hating her. They have wanted her to lose the nomination for the mere sport of it, and they have wanted her to win because they think she's the weakest potential Democratic nominee. Lately, the entire party seems united in its quiet pleading: "Please, Hillary, you're in it, now win it -- for us."
Clinton strategist Mark Penn once boasted about Hillary winning over Republican women. If she is, it's only that they have the same rooting interest as other GOP partisans. Hillary has long loomed in the Republican imagination as the savior of 2008, and there's been a desperate wishfulness to it.
Now, it just might be true. She's looking more vulnerable than she ever has since Republican Rep. Rick Lazio crossed the stage to confront her in a New York Senate debate in 2000, creating a backlash that assured her election and a platform from which to build a front-running presidential campaign.
Despite her intelligence and discipline, Hillary entered the race saddled with inherent weaknesses. She has the kind of negative ratings candidates usually have only after the battering of a general-election campaign, not before. Her political persona ranges from grim to charmless. She may relentlessly call herself an "agent of change," but she's emblematic of an entire era of search-and-destroy partisan politics.
She is the Tony Robbins of negative Republican motivation. At a town-hall meeting in Derry, N.H., back in January, Mitt Romney tried to stir the crowd in the immediate wake of Barack Obama's victory in Iowa: "We cannot afford Barack Obama as the next president." About two people applauded. The next day he mentioned Obama again, but added, "I can't wait to meet Hillary Clinton face to face." Sustained applause.
"She has tremendous baggage, high negatives, and she can't be the candidate of change," says a top Republican strategist who pines for her to be the nominee.
All of that was true even before her bitter campaign with Obama created a wave of revulsion against her among liberal opinionmakers; before she had a rift to heal with African-Americans, high-income liberals and the Kennedy crowd that might keep her running as swiftly to the center as she'd like if she wins the nomination; before she became the "two-in-one" candidate with Bill again, and at times seemingly the junior partner.
Republicans speak in wishful terms about Hillary winning the nomination and fearful ones about Obama overtaking her. "It'll be hard as hell to run against Obama," says the Republican strategist. The Illinois senator's negative ratings could be driven up in a general election, but "hope" is an elusive and risky target for attack. In Obama's favor, in the words of this strategist, is that he's "incredibly likable," that he has "iconic status," that "Americans would like to vote for an African-American" and that "he represents real change."
Elections can't be forecast with precision eight months out, of course. If Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, it will be because of strengths not apparent in her lowest moments. And any Democrat has to be favored when 60 percent or more of the public disapproves of the Republican two-term incumbent's performance. As for Obama, he has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, according to the National Journal, and his lack of experience might matter to general-election voters in a way it hasn't among hope-hungry Democrats. If Obama has more electorate upside than Hillary, he also might have more downside risk.
But most Republicans don't want to find out. Obama may give inspiring speeches at campaign events thronged by thousands, but for Republicans, there's only one candidate of hope: Hillary Rodham Clinton.