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Contentions

Hillary’s Undamaged Hopes

Republicans hoping that the two new biographies of Hillary Clinton (one with a first printing of 275,000, the other of 175,000) will throw the Democrats’ strongest candidate into a tailspin may be disappointed. I’ve yet to get my hands on either of the books, which will be published later this week. But to judge by the leaks to date, neither A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Carl Bernstein, nor Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth (who was one of the first to write about the Whitewater scandal) and current Timesman Don Van Natta Jr., is likely to have an effect on the race.

The books appear to contain interesting details about Bill Clinton’s affairs, including one so serious that he nearly divorced Hillary to marry the other woman. And there are said to be juicy quotes, in particular one from George Stephanopoulos on Hillary’s Jesuitical lying about Travelgate. But these are familiar tropes.

The most interesting chapters may come from Gerth and Van Atta. These two are really the first to take an extended, in-depth look at Hillary’s record as a Senator. But that’s precisely the rub. Senator Clinton has played it close to the vest in Congress, emphasizing her competence and bi-partisan instincts largely to the exclusion of any political skywriting. And unless there are hitherto unsuspected revelations about her Senate career, any damage caused by Her Way may be minimal. The book comes early in the campaign; most likely voters already have a strong sense of what they think of Hillary.

As things now stand, the relentless, low-key emphasis on competence which served Hillary so well in her 2000 Senate campaign will also help her in 2008. Not least because it plays off of President Bush’s marked incompetence, the latest example of which is his ill-drafted immigration reform bill.

When it comes to the Clinton campaign it is important to remember that she’s engaged not in one but in two primary races (political consultant Craig Charney first formulated this idea). One is against Obama for the upper-middle-class vote; the other against John Edwards for the blue-collar vote. She can lose both and still likely win the nomination: neither of her rivals has any cross-class appeal. Which is why, these new exposés notwithstanding, Hillary still remains the favorite.