Clinton in for battle

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WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton says she’s in to win.

But it won’t be easy.

Analysts, Clinton insiders, opponents and political operatives across the country say victory is possible – but the New York senator will have no room for error.

Her first job will be knocking down the conventional wisdom that’s dogged her since her first run for Senate: that she’s too polarizing and unelectable nationally.

Her campaign wasted no time starting Sunday, firing off an analysis by top adviser Mark Penn, who pointed to polls showing Clinton way ahead of other Democrats nationally, and running well against top Republicans.

“It’s really outdated when people say she’s too polarizing,” said Penn.

Clinton’s favorability ratings have been climbing slowly since about 2003, hovering in the low- to mid-50 percent range, with the negative side around 40 percent. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton won with similar numbers.

“People ask me how Hillary can win, and I tell them she’s already winning,” Penn said.

While her national numbers are strong, Clinton has slipped in early voting states, falling behind in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states – and second-caucusing Nevada and second primary South Carolina – pose problems for her.

In Iowa, 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards is widely popular. Ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has loyal support, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was electrifying Democratic activists there before he was a candidate.

In Nevada, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has Western appeal and backing by Hispanics. Edwards has worked hard to lock in all-important unions.

“If (Edwards) can walk away with a couple of labor endorsements, he’s going to show real strong here,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a Nevada party powerbroker.

Clinton hasn’t been to New Hampshire for a decade, but she can bank on lingering love for her husband’s administration.

Obama makes South Carolina hard for Clinton, because half the voters will be African-American.

Democratic and Republican strategists think Clinton could collapse if she doesn’t do well early.

Clinton sources say she’ll compete hard, particularly in fundraising. Right after her announcement Saturday, she began calling donors from home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and firing up an e-mail tree manned by thousands of supporters.

Backers say she’ll succeed the way she did with her “listening tour” around New York in 2000, using the theme of strength, experience and intelligence.

“She’s got to get out there and talk to people,” said Ellen Malcolm of EMILY’s List, which endorsed Clinton. “In New York, you saw that as she got out there, the more people got to know her, the more they liked her.”

Penn said even a tough start won’t stop the Clinton juggernaut. “Either way works,” he said. “She could do very well early (or) she could face a challenge early and then move on to the big states.”

In 2008, those states could come extremely early. Florida is considering moving its primary up to Jan. 29, and Californians are weighing Feb. 5.

The only way to compete that broadly and quickly is with cash and an organization, which Clinton already has.

And, as long as her husband doesn’t stumble, he will be a major asset. “He will double the amount of attention the campaign can get, and take the spotlight from other candidates,” said Chris Lehane, a Clinton administration White House staffer.

Perhaps the biggest wild card for her is the Iraq war, which she voted for. If it gets worse, she may have to find a way to recant her early support, and risk adding to perceptions her positions are poll-driven and calculating.

“That will be tough for her, but she may have to do it,” said Baruch College’s Doug Muzzio. “Her top opponents are already to her left on it.”

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