Impressive as she was last week in her acceptance speech, New York's re-elected Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton now has real competition for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Barack Obama is not only topping the bestseller lists; he is also, almost overnight, since announcing his possible interest in a presidential bid, running second to the New York senator in the latest round of public opinion polls for the 2008 Democratic nomination, having already passed the 2004 nominee, John Kerry, the 2000 nominee, Al Gore, and the 2004 vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, in the early standings for the 2008 race.

Is it bad news for Hillary?

Not if you ask me. It’s bad news for the John, John and Al, not for Hillary: bad news that an unknown could pass them so easily; bad news that is a reflection of their weakness, as much as his strength. But Hillary? She’s in luck.

Real competition is exactly what Hillary needs.

Without Obama, what kind of competition does Hillary really face? If her opponents are that weak, how much do you gain by beating them?

What does it say about Hillary if she could “wrest” the nomination from John Kerry? Not much.

What does it say about her if she could manage to outdo Al Gore — if the unknown Obama could also best him in a poll after two years in the Senate? Not a lot.

It took Hillary six years for New Yorkers to change their minds about her, to see her not as the polarizing former First Lady who six years ago was locked in a tight fight with a relative nobody (sorry Rick), but as a competent, consensus middle of the roader who was simply unbeatable.

She doesn’t have six years to accomplish that transition on the national level, and she will have a lot more people shooting at her while she tries. A quick and meaningless Democratic primary process doesn’t really accomplish much for her. She needs not only to win the Democratic nomination, but to make that victory the first step in a transformational process, even for, especially for, the voters who are not participating but are watching.

You can’t do that when you’re beating straw men.

You can’t do that by defeating a guy who makes jokes about the troops being stupid, or another who has had a tendency lately to fly off the handle ( I mean Gore, not Dean), or a guy no one’s ever heard of who ran 20 years ago (sorry Joe, but come to think of it, Al ran 20 years ago too)…. You need to beat winners, not losers.

That’s where Obama comes in.

Everyone I hear from who knows him sings his praises. My friend Dolores says he’s got it. She is close to him, and to his wife. My friend Charles, his mentor in law school, says the same thing. This is no flash in the pan boy wonder. This is the real thing. After all, he’s a former Harvard Law Review President (just a joke, so am I; we share that first).

Hillary v. Obama is a race worth watching. That’s good for both of them. It means if she beats him — and it will take a marathon, not a sprint, to do it — she’s won a victory that’s worth something.

It means that people will pay attention to the process, which gives her a chance to demonstrate who she is now. It means that whoever emerges from the contest can emerge stronger than he or she was going in, precisely because they beat someone substantial and established their identity in the process.

Of course, it is a risky business. But then, so is politics. No risk, no gain. An unknown like Obama needs a major campaign like this to establish and test himself before the final round. And so does Hillary. Perhaps even more than her less well-known opponent. After all, she has a transformation to accomplish.

And if she can’t at least start it against a first-term senator, and take it the first few big steps down the road, then what are the chances she will be able to accomplish the whole thing in the short months of a general election?

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership.

Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.