ALBANY, N.Y. – She is leading in the polls for the Democrats' presidential nomination in 2008. At least one top Republican ranks her as a formidable presidential candidate. Longtime critics are amassing money and manpower to derail her political career.
And all Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) wants to talk about is her bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
"'06, '06, '06," the New York Democrat chuckled when asked recently about her presidential ambitions.
The former first lady and her top aides steadfastly maintain that her focus is on winning a second term representing New York state in the U.S. Senate. In fact, they have stopped talking publicly about the White House and 2008.
But Republicans say her sights clearly are on the presidency and they are determined to stop her.
New York's Republican chairman, Stephen Minarik, has begun a "Stop Hillary Now!" fund-raising effort, with longtime party operative Arthur Finkelstein (search) lining up donors to help raise $10 million.
Minarik is imploring the Republicans to defeat Clinton in the 2006 Senate race and dash her presidential hopes. "This is not merely a race for New York," he wrote. "It's a race for America."
Cash and enthusiasm may not prove sufficient, however.
Republicans lack a big-name challenger to take on Clinton next year. Rudolph Giuliani's (search) top political adviser said the former New York City mayor, widely seen as a presidential contender, is too busy with business interests to run for the Senate. New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, has said he has no plans to run.
Others mentioned include Manhattan lawyer Edward Cox, a son-in-law of the late President Richard Nixon. Clinton led Cox by a 66-26 percent margin in a recent statewide poll from the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Any challenger would need to start raising money quickly in a state where Senate races are among the costliest in the country.
In 2000, Clinton and Republican Rick Lazio set a record for a Senate race in New York, spending a combined $68.6 million. Lazio spent $39.6 million and Clinton about $29 million.
At the end of last year, Clinton had $5.55 million on hand for her 2006 bid.
The high-profile political life of this Democrat often vilified by the right and worshipped by the left took an odd turn last week when her husband came to her defense.
Asked about Finkelstein's "Stop Her Now!" effort, former President Bill Clinton called it "sad." He alluded to a report that the Republican operative had recently married his longtime male partner, a development that contrasts with the Republican party's tough stance against same-sex marriage.
The former president suggested Finkelstein might be experiencing "some sort of self-loathing."
While the comments were perceived as an attempt to hurt Finkelstein's fund raising with conservatives opposed to gay marriage, at least one consultant said the strategy could backfire.
"You can't make this stuff up," said Republican strategist Nelson Warfield. "You've got an adulterous former president bashing a monogamous gay marriage of a Republican consultant. It is just embarrassing his own wife."
"Ever since Monica (Lewinsky) dropped by the Oval Office, any lecture from Bill Clinton about sexuality in politics hurts Hillary," said Warfield, a top aide in Bob Dole's unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign.
Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton said all sides on the abortion issue should work together to reduce the number of abortions. In the process, she appeared to adopt a strategy espoused by some Democrats that candidates must take a less-confrontational approach when dealing with abortion and other "moral" issues.
One politician mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for the White House in 2008 is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker. He told the American Society of Newspaper Editors last week that he expects Clinton to win re-election in 2006, capture her party's presidential nomination in 2008 and have a good shot at the White House.
"Any Republican who thinks she will be easy to beat has total amnesia about the Clintons," Gingrich said, adding that she has in her husband "the smartest American politician as her adviser."
Sixty-two percent of voters nationwide said they think the United States is ready for a woman to become president in 2008, according to a February poll by Siena College near Albany. Clinton was favored by 53 percent. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had the support of 42 percent of respondents.