WASHINGTON Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launched her much-expected bid for the presidency Saturday, beginning a week of campaign activity that will culminate in a visit next weekend to Iowa, the state whose caucuses kick off the nominating process in about a year.
Days after Sen. Barack Obama, a charismatic newcomer from Illinois, announced on his Web site that he was establishing a presidential exploratory committee, Clinton did the very same thing.
"I'm in," Clinton, who has represented New York State in the Senate for more than six years, said in a statement on her campaign Web site. "And I'm in to win."
If she wins, Clinton would be both the first woman to hold the office, as well as the first former first lady elected to the job.
Although Clinton has long been seen as the Democratic front-runner, she now faces a titanic race for the nomination against Obama who would be the first African-American presidential nominee -- and several other prominent senators and well-regarded, well-connected Democrats.
"It's an embarrassment of riches," said Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, who supports former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for the nomination. "We've got lots of great candidates. It's going to be very competitive."
In a statement posted on her campaign Web site, Clinton outlined her reasons for running.
"As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do," said Clinton, who was re-elected to a second Senate term last November. "But only a new president will be able to undo Bush's mistakes and restore our hope and optimism."
In particular, she said, only a new president can "renew the promise of America" and make sure that Americans get the health care, education and retirement security they need.
"And only a new president can regain America's position as a respected leader in the world," she added.
Clinton enters the race with several assets. She's by far the most well-known candidate; she traditionally has had strong support among women and African-Americans in the Democratic Party; and she has built a reputation as an adept centrist senator who works with both parties.
Perhaps most importantly, she has a vast fundraising network built upon the one her husband, former President Bill Clinton, engineered during his two campaigns for the presidency.
>Holds lead in poll
And despite the onslaught of publicity surrounding Obama's entry into the race, Clinton remains the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Saturday showed Clinton with the support of 41 percent of Democratic primary voters. Obama ranked second with 17 percent, followed by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 11 percent and former Vice President Al Gore at 10 percent.
But Clinton also faces one gigantic liability: a reputation as a polarizing political figure who's adored by her admirers and despised by her detractors.
And the cadre of detractors is not small. A poll released last month by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion indicated that 47 percent of likely voters would not vote for Clinton for president.
Numbers such as those have sown doubts among some Democrats that could harm her presidential bid, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
"One of her biggest problems is that she has not won over the electability faction" those Democrats who fear that her divisive reputation could keep her from ever winning the presidency, Sabato said. "There are an awful lot of Democrats who just don't want to blow it in 2008."
In some ways, Clinton's announcement appeared to be designed to counter those electability questions.
"I have never been afraid to stand up for what I believe in or to face down the Republican machine," she said in her written statement. "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."
The video on Clinton's Web site attempts to show her in a soft, personal light. Relaxed and smiling while seated comfortably on a sofa, Clinton spoke of a "conversation" she plans to start with American voters.
"We all need to be part of the discussion if we're all going to be part of the solution and all of us have to be part of the solution," she said. "Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq and to restore respect for America around the world, how to make us energy independent and free of foreign oil, how to end the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare."
>Plans for video chats
That conversation with voters will begin at 7 p.m. Monday, when, for the first of three consecutive nights, Clinton will conduct video Web chats with voters from across the country.
Phil Singer, a campaign spokesman, said modern computer technology is allowing Clinton to reach out to voters across the country in a personal way, much as her 1999 "listening tour" put her in touch with New York State voters in her first Senate campaign.
Clinton can be warm, personable and witty in person, but pundits have long noted that those traits often appear to be absent in her speeches and television interviews.
But now her Internet conversations appear to be her attempt to get more friendly with voters who might have seen her as cold and standoffish.
"Let's talk," she said in her video announcement Saturday. "Let's chat. Let's start a dialogue about your ideas and mine."
Clinton aides said she would make her first in-person campaign appearances in Iowa next weekend, with a trip to New Hampshire soon to follow.
While a Clinton presidential race has been widely expected since the earliest days of her first Senate campaign, the timing of her announcement raised eyebrows, because Clinton and her aides consistently had said she would make any decision on a presidential race on her timetable and no one else's.
"It does seem a little quicker than you'd expect, based on her earlier remarks," said Linda L. Fowler, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College in the key primary battleground of New Hampshire.
Clinton aides, nevertheless, insisted that the campaign rollout had long been set for this weekend.
Clinton, 59, was born in Chicago. She attended Wellesley College and Yale Law School, where she met her husband-to-be. A year after graduating from law school, she joined him in Arkansas, where, a few years later, he was elected governor.
He was elected to the first of two terms as president in 1992, but even in his first campaign it became clear that she would be no ordinary first lady. In a television interview, she famously declared that she would not spend her time in the White House "baking cookies."
Sure enough, the next year she led her husband's attempt to revamp the American health care system. But the Clintons' proposal collapsed amid industry opposition and congressional infighting.
That was the first of many storms Mrs. Clinton encountered in the White House. Most notably, her husband was impeached in 1998 amid revelations of his affair with former White House intern Monica L. Lewinsky.
Elected to the Senate in 2000 to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she quickly built a reputation as a bipartisan consensus-builder. But her support for the Iraq War in 2002 has haunted her ever since and caused friction with the Democratic Party's left wing.
Clinton's formation of a presidential exploratory committee allows her to begin raising funds for a possible race. She already has a substantial lead in the money race, thanks to $14 million left over from her last Senate race.
Clinton made it clear that she's in the race for keeps.
"As we campaign to win the White House, we will make history and remake our future," she said.