WASHINGTON – To keen political observers, Sen. Hillary Clinton's (search) new role of agenda-maker at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council means more than just helping her party as it struggles with two recent presidential losses and minority status in both chambers of Congress.
It could be a stepping stone for higher national office.
"I don't think there is any question that Senator Clinton is trying to spread her appeal beyond New York and is using the DLC and other platforms as a method of doing that," said Nathan Gonzales, a Rothenberg Political Report (search) analyst who holds no doubt that Clinton is actively running to be president in 2008.
Clinton staffers deny any presidential campaign in the senator's plans, but her spokespeople have not said whether she will pledge to serve out her six-year Senate term if re-elected next year.
Meanwhile, Westchester County prosecutor Jeanine Pirro (search), one of several Republicans vying for a chance to compete against Clinton in 2006, announced that she is running against Clinton in part because the senator does not care about New York but is just using the state as a launching pad for her higher political ambitions.
Clinton's possible run for president has sparked endless speculation, but her alliance with the centrist DLC has many in the Democratic grassroots more than a little uncomfortable, said Democratic activist Dave Johnson, a fellow with the California-based Commonweal Institute and author of the Web log SeeingtheForest.com.
"Does it mean that she is saying we need to keep moving to the right? We just don't know," Johnson said of the confusion held by the "netroots," or the Internet-driven grassroots movement that heaped negative responses on Clinton after her speech at the DLC's July 26 "National Conversation" in Columbus, Ohio.
"That's the fear of the bloggers — that being part of the DLC is just accepting that we have to move to the right," Johnson said.
The debate between the DLC and the netroots, who communicate on major Democratic blogs like DailyKos.com and Mydd.com, has been ongoing since the November election. The grassroots take credit for driving massive ground support for Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004.
They also take credit for Dean's successful campaign to lead the Democratic National Committee despite resistance from the Democratic establishment, and for raising millions in individual donations and rejuvenating party energy lacking in previous contests.
The DLC, which was established in 1985 and played a major role in furthering the winning "third way" strategies of Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, is part of the losing Democratic establishment, say grassroots activists.
"It should disappear off the face of the Earth," said New York Democrat Jeremy Alderson, an anti-poverty activist, who says the DLC's "Republican-lite" model will fail again and again.
Johnson said most of their differences with the DLC are tactical, in that the netroots say they believe the party can craft a powerful message that appeals to all Americans without having to co-opt Republican rhetoric and positions.
"The new approach, what the bloggers are advocating, is just not to accept that the public is moving rightward, but to see the public is being pushed rightward and to push back," he said.
DLC supporters say the netroots, including other vocal activists like filmmaker Michael Moore and MoveOn.org, are trying to drag the Democratic Party to the far-left fringes where it will be marginalized.
Marshall Wittman, writing for the DLC-backed Bullmooseblog.com during the Columbus event, took a swipe at the Daily Kos, which is based in Berkeley, Calif. "While someone from the daily Kosy (sic) confines of Beserkely might utter ominous McCarthyite warnings about the 'enemy within,' here in Columbus constructive, committed crusaders for progressivism are discussing ways to win back the hearts and minds of the heartland."
The battle does not elude Clinton, who spoke of the "divide" during her Columbus remarks as she accepted the role of leading an effort to craft a DLC agenda over the next year.
"Now, I know the DLC has taken some shots from within our party and it has returned fire, too," she said. "Well, I think it's high time for a cease-fire, time for all Democrats to work together based on the fundamental values we all share."
The DLC says in order to win in 2008 and become the majority party it must close the gaps in security, values and culture. DLC founder and CEO Al From has said the party must embrace the "Clintonism" of the former president, which he described not as an "expedient move to the center" but a "tough-minded modernization of liberalism."
During the meeting in Columbus, From told his audience that new ideas for Democrats include boosting the U.S. military forces by 100,000, forcing all colleges to accept military recruiting and ROTC programs on campus and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil by 25 percent in the next 20 years.
Increasing the military is something that Sen. Clinton also backs. In addition, she has spoken about the need to stay the course in Iraq, has recently promoted government regulation of violent video games and has spoken in favor of abstinence education for teens.
Clinton has also raised issues and co-sponsored legislation on a variety of issues with Republican Sens. Bill Frist, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, said former Democratic Texas Rep. Martin Frost.
"I think she's doing exactly the right thing. Hillary is a very shrewd, smart politician," said Frost, a FOX News analyst.
Some say the partnerships and issue topics show Clinton is trying to move to the middle; others say she was never as liberal as the media and Republicans made her out to be.
"I think these are things Hillary has exhibited forever," said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a non-partisan group dedicated to electing more women to office.
Clinton is trying to raise her positive profile by aligning herself with Republicans and distancing herself from the "rabid, radical left that she helped to create," said Republican strategist Kellyanne Conaway.
If Clinton does choose to run for president, one of her challenges, and possibly a major priority, will be to pull together disparate movements.
"Creating a winning coalition is the art of presidential politics and keeping everybody happy is hard and it’s the core thing we do in coalitions," said Simon Rosenberg, who worked on President Clinton's presidential campaigns and is now the president of the New Democrat Network, a close affiliate of the DLC.
"It isn't easy, and certainly there is going to be great debate in our party over where we need to go," Rosenberg said, calling current efforts part of the "rebuilding stage." As for the grassroots, Rosenberg is not ready to dismiss them.
"You can't build a winning party if you assume that the people helping you are hurting you," he said.
Ralph Miller, spokesman for My Vote is My Voice, a nationwide grassroots network, said hardly any consensus exists among the netroots about whether Clinton is the best presidential prospect for 2008.
"Let's see what prospects she brings to the table," he said. "She has a strong following and there are big advantages to having her in the process."