(CNSNews.com) - Although Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has insisted she will not run for the presidency in 2004, her Monday appearance as the keynote speaker at a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) convention in New York City fueled speculation that she is positioning herself to play an important role in the 2004 race.
The DLC conference for centrist Democrats is seen as one of the must-attend events for presidential hopefuls, although Al Gore reportedly stayed away because he is already the frontrunner in the pool of prospective contenders.
Sens. Tom Daschle (S.D.), Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.) and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) are speaking at the DLC convention. All five trail Gore in hypothetical primary match ups, according to a Washington Post/Gallup poll conducted in July.
Gore was supported by 46 percent of those surveyed. Eighteen percent had "no opinion," ten-percent supported Lieberman, who was Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential election and the rest of the field was in single digits.
Hillary Clinton's name was not in the poll, due perhaps to her declared status of non-candidate. But in a July poll that did include Sen. Clinton, she ranked second to Gore, with 20 percent support to his 28 percent. Lieberman and the others were in single digits, with former presidential candidate Bill Bradley at ten percent.
Looking at such polling numbers, along with other favorable factors, Godfrey Sperling, long-time columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, last month boldly predicted Hillary Clinton would change her mind about 2004.
"Bill [Clinton] told voters he would stay in his governorship for the full term - and didn't," Sperling noted. "So I wouldn't be surprised if Hillary follows a similar course."
Sperling also examined some data provided by John Zogby, one of the nation's most prominent pollsters, showing that the public's views about Hillary Clinton have softened over time. Her "strong negatives" were high during her Senate race (46 percent) but are now in the mid-30s.
Most of all, Sen. Clinton's personal ambition and tenacity will be the main ingredients in her decision to run, Sperling believes. In 1991, Sperling recounts, it was she who convinced her husband to stay in the race when he had doubts.
In any case, Sperling wrote, "she will also figure that even if she loses, she can put herself in a good position for being the nominee in 2008, when the prospect for winning may be much better."
Not so fast, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
"She's not in the game at all in 2004 ... for either position" -- president or vice president, he insisted.
"The Clinton years are still a very clear memory for most people, and that involves a lot of controversy. But 2008, who can say what the public memory may be? The public tends to forget or ... reframe memory."
Also, said Sabato, the freshman senator will want to get further established in New York and re-make her image into that of a centrist (rather than liberal) Democrat before running for president.
By 2008, "she will probably have been re-elected in New York and she'll have four years before her next Senate election, so it will be a perfect opportunity. And if Bush is re-elected, there will be an open presidency," Sabato said. Even if she doesn't win the nomination, "but makes a credible showing, then she's the logical V.P. candidate," he added.
Sen. Clinton, meanwhile, is keeping a somewhat lower profile than other Democrats. Edwards, Lieberman, Kerry, Gephardt and Daschle have made conspicuous appearances at political events in Iowa, site of the nation's first presidential caucus and New Hampshire, scene of the first primary.
In June, for example, most of the men on that short list traveled to Des Moines to pay tribute to a local labor leader and a county activist who also served in the Clinton administration.
Kerry and Lieberman had their respective political committees donate $5,000 apiece, winning them spots as hosts of the event. Edwards' political committee reportedly donated to 20 Democratic candidates running for the Iowa House of Representatives this year.
And Gephardt gave money to the campaigns of a handful of mayoral candidates in New Hampshire last year.
Still, it's way too early to predict who will sizzle and who will fizzle in 2004, according to Sabato.
"It's just too early to say. People who think they do [know] have no real sense of history, because these things turn out strangely."
E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.
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