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The race is now official Clinton's expected presidential bid starts to define the 2008 campaign field

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made what may have been the most unsurprising announcement of her political career recently: She aspires to be the next President Clinton.

The announcement, driven by the need to keep her nomination front-runner status in the face of early pressure from other contenders, officially puts Clinton into the fray with a range of declared or potential candidates who have put together exploratory committees. The good news for voters: At least on the Democratic side, the November 2008 presidential election is shaping up as one of many choices. The bad news: It's still only January 2007.

The primary pressure, of course, comes from fellow Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who has grabbed near-superstar status on the public stage despite a short national track record. But there are several others, even including perennial candidate Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

At this stage of what is now -- heaven help us -- a two-year campaign, it's more about image than substance. Clinton knows that. With polling showing her the current party favorite, she needed an aggressive early start to sap Obama's growing momentum. Clinton now is making regular appearances on morning talk shows to establish herself and counter the strong negative ratings polls also show. She is fond of saying that she may be "the most famous person people don't know," and her staff echoes that rebuild-the-image push -- emphasizing her Midwestern roots, what they consider her moderate positions and her reflections on some key decisions.

Clinton, an early supporter of the war in Iraq, has now made an important qualification. Recently, on the "Today" show, she indicated that she would not have voted for the war had she known what we all now know. Two years out, the Iraq War remains any campaign's single most important issue.

So far, Democrats vying for the nomination include Clinton, Obama, former Sen. John Edwards -- currently considered the top contenders -- along with Kucinich, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware says he will declare soon.

Republicans have been slightly more restrained. Front-runners include Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

As political analysts point out, it's still early in the entire presidential campaign. Why the rush? It's possible potential candidates do not want to make the same mistake Gen. Wesley Clark made in entering late in the last election and failing to build momentum. More practically, at this point they are vying not for public votes but for private campaign money.

Clinton's got a war chest full of cash, not to mention an enviable list of supporters. But she still needs to build that fund, and to try to deny contributions to her opponents. Keeping front-runner status is critical to that effort.

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