ARLINGTON, Va. -- Fundraisers on the left and right are salivating now that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has declared, "I'm in" the 2008 presidential race. On the left, feminists will likely hail her as the reincarnation of suffragette Susan B. Anthony. On the right, conservatives will portray her as a cross between Lady Macbeth and Bonnie Parker.
Conservatives should be careful. The nonstop attacks on Bill Clinton did not keep him from winning in 1992, nor did his personal scandals prevent his re-election four years later. Using similar smear tactics on Mrs. Clinton will only turn her into a victim and cause many not predisposed to vote for her to support her.
Men can't run against a woman the way they run against other men. Former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio learned the double standard voters apply to a female candidate when he challenged Mrs. Clinton in 2000 for the New York Senate seat she now holds. During a debate, Mr. Lazio left his lectern and got very close to her to make a point. Many voters saw a man trying to physically intimidate a woman, and he lost the debate and the election.
Some conservative Web sites are already claiming Senator Clinton will unite the Republican base like no other Democratic candidate. Maybe, but that base is too small to counter what surely will be a surge in female voters. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that six out of 10 women were likely to support Mrs. Clinton in her run for the White House.
A major advantage for Republicans is that Mrs. Clinton is not her husband. She is aloof and calculating, while he can be warm and engaging. We have seen his temper - most recently in an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace - but we have only heard about hers. Will the public accept this kind of behavior from a woman who wants to be president? Will such behavior be seen as strength or character weakness?
In an interview with The Sunday Times of London, Mrs. Clinton's campaign manager, Terry McAuliffe, compared her to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "Their policies are totally different," he said, "but they are both perceived as very tough." Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher are as different as Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem. Toughness in the pursuit of bad ideas is as unhelpful as weakness in pursuit of good ones.
In her videotaped announcement, which emulated Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy last week, Senator Clinton ticked off the issues about which she is ticked off, because she says the Bush administration has failed to deal with them. They include health care, Social Security, Medicare and Iraq. The Bush administration has attempted to address all of these, but Democrats have blocked any progress.
The Clintons have a well-oiled political machine that neutralizes people who get in the way of their pursuit of wealth and power. Senator Clinton sounded as if she is ready to haul out that machine again when she said, "I have never been afraid to stand up for what I believe in or to face down the Republican machine. After nearly $70 million spent against my campaigns in New York and two landslide wins, I can say I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate, and how to beat them."
Media reports speak of this being the most "diverse" presidential race ever with a woman (Mrs. Clinton), an African-American (Mr. Obama) and a Hispanic (New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson). But this is not ideological diversity, as all are liberals. This race shouldn't be about race, gender or ethnicity, but ideas. The big media, so far, have tossed Senator Clinton softball questions. Handlers have been able to get away with limiting questions to pre-approved subjects. The public will demand more from her and the media in a presidential campaign.
There has never been a campaign like the one the country is about to experience. The focus should not be on gender or any other side issue, but on who is best qualified to defend the country against its many enemies, foreign and domestic.
Look for the dirtiest, meanest and most costly presidential campaign in history in pursuit of the answer.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.