Hillary's Rove Factor

When Karl Rove took repeated swipes at New York Senator Hillary Clinton last month, she seemed to savor the attack as recognition of her front-runner status. She played with it and got laughs with a sardonic comment about how Rove "spends a lot of time obsessing about me."

There were unintended consequences to the Rove broadsides.

They became the news, raising speculation about GOP overkill tactics as Rove leaves the White House. Conspiracy theories proliferated about whether Rove wanted to provoke other Democrats to rush to defend Clinton, helping her get the nomination -- and, in Rove's playbook, become the perfect candidate for the Republicans in 2008.

Some analysts said this was what Rove had done in 2004: focus attacks on Senator John Kerry, whom they preferred to Senator John Edwards as an opponent. Although Edwards encouraged this line of thinking, it didn't generate much steam on the stump for him.

Ethel Klein, a pollster and political analyst who is not working for any Democratic candidate, speculates that Rove went after Clinton to prove "that his strategy of motivating the [core GOP] constituency can work again -- that she's the devil personified." The attacks had special fervor, she said, because "he's been discredited and so his credibility is at stake."

Klein doesn't believe Rove's views matter much these days.

They do dramatize, however, how Clinton continues to move forward, even with high negatives, and is proving skeptics wrong by being a formidable campaigner.

"This is a very different thing for a woman candidate. She doesn't have to worry about proving that she's tough," Klein said. She is vying for the country's top position of power, "and she doesn't apologize for that."

Clinton survived publication of two biographies about her early in the summer, one of them a relentless attack on her decades in public life. She has figured out a way to compete with the phenomenon of the 2008 race, Senator Barrack Obama of Illinois. She pursues a nonstop campaign pace, honing a message that she brings not only experience but also a fresh view to national politics. She has kept her footing and then some in the debates.

In short, she appears to be making headway in doing what many critics believed impossible: show a new Hillary to a country where views about her seemed already set in concrete.

The Rove attacks, ironically, may have helped her do this.

His major points -- that she has higher unfavorable ratings than other presidential candidates in the past and that this makes her "fatally flawed" -- prompted the Gallup Poll experts to come out with their own August 22 analysis, which contradicts Rove's assumptions.

Frank Newport, Jeffrey M. Jones and Joseph Carroll of the Gallup News Service noted that while campaigning, several recent presidential candidates also had unfavorable ratings of just below 50 percent: George W. Bush in 2004 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Gallup's most recent polls put Senator Clinton's ratings at 47 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable.

"What is most relevant is the fact that Hillary Clinton's own favorable ratings have shown dramatic shifts since she entered national public life in 1992," Gallup said. "As recently as April of this year, a majority of Americans rated Clinton unfavorably, but a month later her favorable rating had increased 8 percentage points while her unfavorable rating dropped 7 points."

They said Clinton could continue to improve her image during the campaign -- or not. What matters more are polls that measure voting intentions, and here Clinton, high negatives and all, remains competitive with the leading Republicans, they said.

Matt Angle of the Texas Values Political Action Committee, which aims to loosen the Republican grip on the state, says anti-Hillary sentiment may be exaggerated. "I don't think it was that negative against her, in Texas anyway. There is a lot of support for Hillary and Obama and Edwards."

Yes, Angle said, she mobilizes and unites people who are Hillary haters "but not to a degree that it spells doom or is impossible."

He would never count Rove out, however, in his prowess at whipping up opposition to her. "I would not be surprised if he's behind the scenes doing what he does best: create a wedge between ideological groups and Democratic candidates, to try to build up emotional animosity against Democrats."

Angle said Rove and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich talk about Clinton "as the presumptive nominee to rally their hard-core base. But we're not going to get their hard-core anyway. I worry less about what they do than what we do. We have to rally our own base."

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