WASHINGTON -- Nearly a year after political opponents of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton set up a campaign committee called "Stop Her Now," they are $9.98 million short of their $10 million fund-raising goal.
So now they are saying they will stop her eventually. And the pundits and the polls indicate that might be her opponents' best strategy.
Six years after winning a Senate seat in a state where she had never lived, Clinton appears to be coasting to re-election. Polls show that she has grown consistently more popular in her adopted home state, while Republicans struggle to settle on an opponent to challenge the former first lady.
But Clinton's growing popularity at home doesn't translate into an easy return trip to the White House. While she's the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic nomination, she's taking hostile fire from the left and facing a cadre of voters who say they will never vote for her.
And that is why William Black, the Republican operative behind "Stop Her Now," feels pretty confident.
The Senate race "is not very competitive," said Black, contending that his group's plans have been delayed by a reluctance to raise cash in wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Now, Black said, his group is starting to raise the money needed to remind America of Clinton's liberal record which means that if she runs for president, he said, "She'll die on the vine."
By any measure, though, Clinton is thriving in New York State. A Quinnipiac University poll last month found that 60 percent of state voters approve of her performance -- up from a mere 38 percent shortly after she took office.
Political pros said she improved her standing by delving into local issues. She fought to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, fought for funding for New York City in wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and launched an effort to sell upstate farm products to downstate restaurants.
"She has worked her tail off," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "She's been in every county, and her numbers just go up month by month by month."
That puts Republicans in a tough spot.
The likely GOP candidate is John Spencer, a staunchly conservative, senatorially silver-haired former mayor of Yonkers.
"It's Hillary Clinton and who?" Carroll said.
Spencer will be quick to answer that question.
"I think I will be a better U.S. senator," he said. "I will be an on-the-ground servant for the people of New York. Mrs. Clinton, she travels around like a celebrity, giving speeches."
Spencer is more than $16 million behind Clinton and 30 points behind in the latest Quinnipiac poll. But he insisted he will be able to raise the $25 million to $30 million he will need to take his case to the voters.
But Democratic consultant Hank Scheinkopf said Spencer is so conservative that he may drive white male Catholic voters to support Clinton.
"It's an extraordinary opportunity for her to reach out and prove that she can get votes from a key constituency that you need to be elected president," Scheinkopf said.
She can use all the proof she can get. She has bolstered her position in New York, but doubts about her 2008 prospects remain and may be growing.
For one thing, her habit of cosponsoring values-friendly legislation with Republicans and her middle-of-the-road stance on the Iraq War have won Clinton new enemies on the left.
Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular blog Daily Kos, lashed out at Clinton for co-sponsoring a bill banning flag-burning, terming it "a regrettable act of political pandering."
Meanwhile, syndicated columnist Molly Ivins said she won't support Clinton for president.
"Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her," Ivins wrote recently.
>Still the favorite
Nevertheless, Clinton remains the favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Polls show that upwards of 40 percent of Democratic voters favor her -- which is twice the support of any of the second-tier candidates. And those polls show little slippage amid the recent barrage of attacks from the party's far left.
Moreover, Clinton inherited a political machine that her husband began building 15 years ago that is capable of raising far more money than any other Democratic candidate.
Yet Clinton has one overriding disadvantage.
"What will hurt her is the electability issue," said Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, a New Hampshire polling firm.
A recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll showed that 44 percent of voters wouldn't vote for Clinton for president under any conditions. And that's a big handicap, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"It means that even if you do everything perfectly and you're not going to do everything perfectly you're going to have a lot of people voting against you," he said. "It's a huge issue."
What's more, it's a multidimensional problem. Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, last week spelled it all out on the townhall.com blog.
>The Clinton name
For one thing, she would be the first woman to lead a major party's ticket, and it's unclear how voters would respond to that, Gonzales said.
For another, she's a senator, meaning she will have a treasure trove of votes for her opponent to exploit. And she's from the Northeast, which has a liberal reputation that inevitably hurts presidential candidates from the region.
And above all, there's the Clinton name.
"From her own failed health care proposal in the early 1990s to being married to one of the most polarizing political figures of the day, Clinton may have the ability to draw Republicans to the polls in November 2008 that no GOP nominee could effectively have himself," Gonzales wrote.
Then again, Clinton has improved her standing in national polls in recent years. And while refusing to comment on a possible 2008 presidential run, Clinton aides argue that the exposure she has gained as senator is responsible for that upturn.
"My experience is that, every time people get to know more about her, rather than the one-dimensional caricature, they like her better," said Ann Lewis, director of communications for the Clinton Senate campaign.
Polling data seems to back that point. Bennett's firm recently conducted presidential polls in six New England states and found the current GOP front-runner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, leading Clinton in every state but one: Connecticut, which is exposed to the New York media's Clinton coverage.
"I think she's exceeded expectations as a senator, so she gets a bonus for that," Bennett said.