Hillary vs. Karl in battle royale

March 03, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- What's with Karl Rove and Hillary Rodham Clinton? President Bush's brain and the former first lady have been sounding like chattering teenage candidates in a hot student council race.

It started when Mr. Rove, the president's political guru, was quoted in Bill Sammon's book Strategery, released recently by the notoriously anti-Clinton publishing house Regnery Publishing. Mr. Rove predicted that Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic senator from New York, will win the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Anybody who thinks that she's not going to be the candidate is kidding themselves," he said. But, hey, he hastily added, no way is she actually going to win the White House.

Why? Because she's too "liberal" and has this "brittleness" about her, Mr. Rove remarked.

Well, the sun did not set before Mrs. Clinton was all over WROW-AM radio in Albany, heaving a sigh about how Mr. Rove "spends a lot of time obsessing about me." Oh?

"Why are they spending so much time talking about me?

"What they're hoping is that all of their missteps, which are now numbering in the hundreds, are going to somehow be overlooked because people, instead of focusing on the '06 election, will jump ahead and think about the next one."

The day did not end before Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt dished back on behalf of Mr. Rove, who was oddly unavailable for comment: "Senator Clinton would be better served if she spent less time flattering herself with perceived obsession and more time focusing on her job."

To paraphrase a children's rhyme, Karl and Hillary sittin' in a tree/ F-E-U-D-I-N-G.

Actually, New York politicos have been buzzing for months about Mr. Rove's efforts to drum up a decent Republican challenger for Mrs. Clinton's Senate seat. Former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, Mrs. Clinton's only declared Republican Senate opponent, said he spoke months ago with Mr. Rove's associates in the White House.

Of course Mr. Rove is obsessing over Mrs. Clinton. So is the rest of Washington. She is the quintessential political lightning rod, simultaneously able to raise large amounts of money for her friends and her adversaries. In order to raise money and rally one's troops, one must have a formidable enemy to hate, fear and demonize. Unfortunately for the right, Republicans have a demon shortage. Washington Democrats don't look all that formidable these days. Republican control of all three branches of government has left the GOP with no one to blame but itself for any of the current mess in Washington.

Except, there's still Hillary Clinton.

So Republicans appear to be testing a new line of attacks. Mr. Rove's "brittleness" jab echoes Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman's critique in early February that "Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of anger" and first lady Laura Bush's suggestion later that Mrs. Clinton lacks "empathy." All could be early signs of what Democratic media consultant David Axelrod calls "long-term character assassination," the needling tactics that eventually painted John Kerry as a flip-flopper and Al Gore as a serial exaggerator.

But that oddly looks like a no-lose deal for Mrs. Clinton. So far, her political jiu-jitsu has turned the attacks into the sincerest confirmation of her own effectiveness. Having been called everything but a child of God by right-wing attack ads, she has become inoculated. New smears sound like old news.

Instead, she seems to have a good point when she accuses Team Bush of trying to draw attention to the '08 race and away from the administration's current "missteps." They may not be "numbering in the hundreds," as she says, but who's counting?

For now, the Rove-Clinton exchange reveals an odd marriage of convenience that helps Mr. Rove rally the Republicans and Mrs. Clinton the Democrats in this election year.

Ironically, Mrs. Clinton's anxious base may pose a bigger problem for her than her right-wing opponents. Angry liberals think she's trying too hard to be moderate. Nervous moderates think she's too vulnerable to GOP attacks.

But compared with her most likely Democratic opponents, she stands out like the tallest jockey at the racetrack - hard to ignore, even by those who say she can't win.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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