Here's a little test you can try on your Republican and Democratic friends. Ask the Republicans who they think will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. And then ask the Democrats the same thing.
If your experience is the same as mine, the Republicans will almost universally predict that Hillary Clinton will be the candidate. But the Democrats, oddly enough, will be much more doubtful.
For Republicans, Hillary Clinton is just about as offensive as a Democrat can get. But they not only detest her -- they fear her. They know how she steamrolled her way into the U.S. Senate in 2000. They have yet to find any serious Republican candidate willing to stand up and take a licking at her hands when she runs for re-election this year. They know that she is piling up a formidable war chest for her presidential bid in 2008. And they realize, ruefully, that she has, in Bill Clinton, the best campaign manager in the business. Already he has piloted her toward the center of the political spectrum, from her previous position on the far left. Finally, her name-recognition is near-total.
To be sure, there are some other Democratic politicians sniffing the winds of 2008. Grover Norquist, a Republican strategist, has dismissed them, however, as "six or seven emasculated senators (who will) pretend to run for president while actually auditioning for vice president," and he is probably right. Sen. John Kerry might regard the vice presidential nomination as beneath him. But former Sen. John Edwards accepted it once, and would certainly accept it again. And so, too, in all likelihood, would such other possible players as former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia and Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa. No wonder Republicans are inclined to think that Hillary will take the 2008 Democratic convention the way Grant took Richmond.
But Democrats -- at least the ones I have talked to -- are less certain. Propose Hillary as their likely nominee, and they will roll the idea around in their minds as if it were an interesting thought that had just occurred to them. They don't reject her; they simply don't forthrightly endorse her. If you press them a bit, asking the reason for their reluctance, they don't cite any of her policy positions as objectionable. Instead, they are likely to say that they're just not certain she could win the general election. And that is, of course, a thoroughly legitimate consideration.
Hillary Clinton probably has the highest negative ratings of any national politician (with the possible exception of George W. Bush). Polls indicate that something approaching an absolute majority of the American people would "never" vote for her for president. It's not the fact that she's a woman; the polls also indicate that people are less opposed than ever to the idea of a woman president. But Hillary comes across, at least to many people, as calculating and fearsomely ambitious. She is no longer (if she ever was) the valiant little wife "standing by her man." She is widely regarded as cold, hard and determined to have her way. Not for nothing do Republicans call her "the Ice Queen."
What, then, is to prevent the Democratic convention from passing her over and nominating somebody else? In theory, nothing; but that's not the way things necessarily work. The Republicans in 1964 knew that Barry Goldwater was a long shot, but they nominated him anyway. So, too, did the Democrats in 1972 pick George McGovern, even though most of them knew full well that he was far outside the mainstream of American political opinion. There are times when a personality, or an idea, so overwhelms the competition that resistance seems not only futile, but ridiculously stubborn, even when it's based on common sense.
So the Democrats may well have Hillary in their future, regardless of her high negatives, unless one of her possible competitors can bring her down in some of the major primaries.
And nobody is within sight of that achievement yet.