WASHINGTON – With a speech that focused on providing contraceptives to poor women but added a notable tip of the hat to abstinence education, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) recently drew a gale of speculation — positive and negative — over whether she is anticipating a 2008 presidential run.
"She is one of many people after the election trying to build a broader audience — reaching across differences," said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project (search), a non-profit advocacy group promoting more women leaders. "As a party leader, that's her job. Will it make her more interesting as a presidential candidate? Sure."
"If anybody is going to [make a run] it's going to be a Clinton, because they seem to reinvent the mold and change the rules as they go along, and this is probably just the beginning," countered Kimberly Morella, first vice president of the Westchester County, N.Y., Republican Women's Club.
Despite the conciliatory nature of the speech, Clinton-watchers might be a little too anxious to detect and decipher any clues the New York senator and former first lady may drop indicating that she is running for president in 2008.
For instance, Clinton colleague Sen. Barbara Boxer recently led the opposition to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. Clinton voted to confirm Rice, as did 31 other Democrats. Asked to explain Clinton's vote, Democratic strategist Bob Beckel said, "She's running for president and Barbara Boxer isn't."
“I think the context gets distorted because people try to read into her every move,” said Karen White, political director of Emily’s List (search), the leading fund-raiser for pro-choice women candidates.
In her Jan. 24 speech before the New York State Family Planning Providers (search), Clinton spoke extensively about her ongoing support to make available family planning resources, including contraceptives, to low-income women. She blamed the Bush administration for freezing funding in the 2003 and 2004 Title X (search) budgets that make this happen.
She also said she supports the delivery of the controversial “morning after pill,” emergency contraception that can prevent pregnancies within 72 hours after sex, to women who have been sexually assaulted.
On the other hand, Clinton emphasized that “we should embrace” research that shows that teenage girls with strong religious and moral values more frequently abstain from sex and argued that continuing to educate young people about abstinence is the best way to avoid unwanted pregnancy. She concluded that “the jury is still out” on the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs.
Clinton's call to abortion rights advocates in her audience to try and find common issues with their anti-abortion counterparts as well as recent high-profile appearances drove press coverage afterward — and talk of a possible 2008 candidacy.
"If you heard Sen. Clinton during the election, there was no one who sounded more presidential," said Wilson, referring to the New York senator's speech at the Democratic National Convention.
"But now, after [Sen. John] Kerry's defeat, there is speculation that the voice that sounded so presidential is now seeking to be president," said Wilson, who added that the political news wires have been electrified by “HRC” sightings, quotations and maneuvers.
Not everyone is pleased by the prospect of a Clinton run in 2008. Janice Crouse, executive director of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the policy arm of the abortion opponents Concerned Women for America (search), said Clinton won’t get away with trying to re-invent herself as a moderate, particularly on the abortion issue.
"It all has a hollow ring to it," Crouse said, noting that “a radical agenda” lurks behind Clinton's speech. “It’s just another example of Clinton political spin. She’s been good at that from the very beginning.”
Crouse said she and many others believe the pro-life, socially conservative ranks had a strong role in helping Bush win re-election in November, and now Democrats like Clinton are running scared.
“The Democratic Party realizes that it has got to come to the center if they are going to win any election in the future,” Crouse said.
Some political analysts who spoke to FOXNews.com said Clinton has been deftly preparing for a run for higher office but she’s not pandering or pursing a strategy of deception to do it. They add that since taking office in 2000, Clinton has toned down both her liberal predilections and celebrity status. She has learned to operate effectively as one of 100 senators, a world that is much less hyperbolic, more cordial and usually more cooperative than the House of Representatives.
“I think Hillary Clinton has a record on the Senate and as first lady,” said White. “I don’t think she’s had to recast herself to reach out to the rest of the country. I think there are people in both red and blue states who believe in her ability to lead.”
Ann Lewis, a long-time spokeswoman and adviser to the Clintons who is now director of communications for Clinton’s 2006 Senate campaign, said the lawmaker is concentrating on winning re-election to the Senate and it would be ridiculous to talk about anything beyond that.
“I cannot be responsible for the people’s speculations,” she told FOXNews.com, calling the non-stop Clinton-watch “the equivalent of the hot stove league in baseball.”
According to press releases posted on her Web site in January, Clinton is demanding more first-responder funds for New York, increased survivor benefits for families of fallen soldiers and more funding for veterans' health care. She has also looked outward, congratulating the Iraqis on their hard-won election last month; nominating the Georgian and Ukrainian presidents for a Nobel Peace Prize; and pushing through a tax-relief bill for U.S. donors to contribute more to the Indian Ocean tsunami relief efforts.
“All the indications are that she is in the running for 2008 and you have to say she is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination,” said John Fortier, political expert for the American Enterprise Institute (search), noting that Clinton has been somewhat successful in softening her image. “She is still a polarizing figure, but coming out of the 2000 election you would have said that even more.”
Fortier cautioned, however, against assuming that Clinton is lurching to the right because of the 2004 election results.
"It was still a rather close election," said Fortier. "We don't know how things will be in four years so I wouldn't overreact."