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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is at the crossroads -- again.

After tirelessly storming the country for Sen. John F. Kerry and raising millions of dollars for his candidacy and for Democrats in Congress, she, after Kerry's defeat, has become the party's favorite for 2008.

A national poll taken on Election Night showed Democrats and independents preferred her by a wide margin as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer on Thursday said his fellow New York Democrat is the front-runner but then added: "That's other people speculating."

Despite the polls and speculation, however, how President Bush won re-election has given her much to think about, especially since it was a clearly conservative tide that swept him to a second term.

Clinton herself was noncommittal about her future when asked by reporters on Thursday in Brooklyn.

"Oh, I am having the best time being the senator from New York. And, I'm focused on continuing to do the work that I am doing on behalf of the people of New York," she said.

Clinton, who is 57, has not yet formally declared she is a candidate for re-election to the Senate in two years.

And she made no bid to replace the defeated Tom Daschle, D-S.D., for Senate Democratic leader. Instead, she backed her friend Harry Reid of Nevada for the job.

But since 2003, she has spent $1.7 million running her political action committee, HILLPAC, giving away more than $350,000 to friends in Congress and to state Democratic committees around the country.

From her own campaign treasury, she donated another $125,000 to federal candidates for this election.

Commentators are divided on whether she should try a presidential bid because of the way Bush won re-election, winning as he did with legions of conservative and religious voters energized by their opposition to homosexual marriage and abortion.

Reasons not to run

Michael Haselswerdt, a Canisius College pollster and professor, thinks she should not run for president in four years -- unless something dramatic changes.

"All the groundwork she did for Kerry and the others was for a scenario that turned out to be different," says Haselswerdt, a Democrat. "The results of Tuesday were not what she and other Democrats were looking for."

Democrats were looking to take the White House and make gains in Congress on standard party issues and concerns about the Iraq war, he said. Instead, traditional family values played a surprisingly pivotal role in re-electing Bush and firming up GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

Toni Michelle Travis, a specialist in racial and women's affairs at George Mason University, agreed: "Because of the voting patterns in the red (Bush) states, I don't think she'll play well. I just can't see her winning say, Alabama, under the present environment."

A new playing field

"She's from liberal New York, and a woman lawyer; the woman lawyer label says 'aggressive' to some voters who seem to be looking for something more traditional," said Travis, a Clinton supporter.

Travis said Sen. Clinton should stay in the Senate -- "people still see the Senate as one route to the presidency and still find some way of getting out and meeting the people around the country" while weighing a run for the White House in 2008.

Bush's values-centered election campaign changes the playing field, Travis said.

If Clinton wants to run for president, Travis said, she now has to project what the emerging issues are going to be in four years, "look at who didn't vote and how to appeal to them," while making sure she could appeal to Kerry voters.

After starting with a 38 percent approval rating in 2001, Clinton is now at the peak of her popularity with New York voters -- holding a 61 percent approval rating in September.

That has come from a combination of hard work on local problems around the state, ranging from getting a new post office for tiny Versailles to rebuilding the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Icon of polarization

Clinton positioned herself to protect military facilities in the state by becoming the first member of the Armed Services Committee from New York State in history.

At the same time, she has maintained a relatively noncontroversial profile by cooperating with Republicans to get legislation passed. Her work product has been prodigious. She sponsored 138 bills, and co-sponsored 685 bills in the past two years alone. Between 2001 and 2003, she sponsored 161 bills and co-sponsored 495.

She has smoothed the way for her bills by larding the campaign treasuries of her Senate colleagues with money.

In the past two years, she's given $50,000 to Democrats on the Senate Appropriation Committee alone.

Kathleen Casey, director of the Program for Women Public Officials at Rutgers University, worries about the senator's negatives in the polls stemming from controversies in the second term of the Clinton White House.

"This is a polarized nation," Casey said, "and (Clinton) is one of the icons of polarization.

"We would like to have a woman president," Casey said. "But we really would like to have a woman candidate win."

American women should be looking among the nation's women governors for a presidential candidates, as well as in the Senate, Casey said.

"Whatever woman runs, she will come on the national scene as a relative unknown -- unless she is Hillary Clinton," Casey said. "The others enter with an opportunity to create (for public consumption) who they are."

Negative ratings ebbing

While Sen. Clinton's negative poll ratings in national surveys are legendary, they are also declining. In March 2001, Clinton suffered from a negative rating of 53 percent according to a Gallup Poll, while 44 percent viewed her favorably.

Last July, poll respondents viewed Sen. Clinton 56 percent favorably to 38 percent unfavorably.

Washington Bureau assistant Anna L. Miller contributed to this article.


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