Richard Reeves

Hillary for President?

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Sen. John Kerry spent the weekend in the Hamptons but never got to the beach. There is no time for sand and sea when you are gathering money for a presidential campaign.

The man from Massachusetts had a pretty good couple of days. Several dozen New Yorkers (mostly) paid $500 each to hear him at a brunch in Southampton, where he was introduced as the candidate with: "the war record of John Kennedy, the brains of Bill Clinton, the toughness of Lyndon Johnson and the hair of Ronald Reagan."

A good time was had by all, even if you heard the occasional grumble of, "What the hell is she doing out here? What is she raising money for?"

"She" is Hillary. The senator from New York was down the road in Easthampton, getting ready to do her own gathering at a $250-a-head cocktail party. Pretty good for a freshman senator. But Kerry, who has served 19 years in that august company, is not concerned about Hillary the senator. He is worried about Hillary for President -- and well he should be.

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 has changed totally in the past few weeks. At the beginning of the summer, Hillary could comfortably deny having national presidential ambitions because the comfortable conventional wisdom was that it didn't really matter who the Democratic candidate would be, because President Bush had a lock on re-election. (I'm sure that the thought has never crossed her mind that it would be better for her if Bush won in 2004, leaving her a clear field in 2008.)

But now! With Bush looking more vulnerable because there are not enough jobs at home and not enough peace abroad, Sen. Clinton has to check some numbers. If a Democrat, say Kerry, defeats Bush next November and then runs for re-election in 2008, then her next chance to run would probably be in 2012, when she will be 65 years old. And who knows what the world will look like then?

For the record, our new senator has said she was not interested in the presidency. So has former Vice President Al Gore, who might be rethinking his own future. Not for the record, though, Hillary and her advisers, including her husband the ex-president, her money men and pollsters, will meet shortly after Labor Day -- Sept. 6, I hear -- to discuss whether or not she should go for it. It is a decision that has to be made earlier rather than later because of November and December filing deadlines for the early primary elections that will almost certainly (and very quickly) identify the 2004 Democratic nominee.

The contest, again almost certainly, will be over by March 2 at the latest, and possibly as early as the end of January. California, New York, Texas, Ohio and eight smaller states will hold primary elections on Super-Super Tuesday that second day of March. There is even a chance that if the same candidate, say Kerry, could win the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, he could win early enough to cut off the financial and journalistic oxygen of other Democratic runners. If Hillary decides to do it -- you get to be president only by running for it -- she will have to meet filing deadlines by announcing her candidacy before the end of this year.

Sen. Clinton is in the same high-stakes dilemma as one of her predecessors was 35 years ago. In 1968, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was the most celebrated Democrat in the country after President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run -- after almost being defeated in New Hampshire by a critic of the war in Vietnam, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Kennedy threw caution and old non-candidate promises to the wind and entered the contest against McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.

There are great similarities between then and now, and between New York's carpetbagger senators -- Bobby from Massachusetts, Hillary from Arkansas -- beginning with their name recognition, their armies of admirers and enemies and their dominating position in polls.

And polling could drive Hillary's decision, beginning with Bush's popularity ratings. On her own side, Democratic polls right now show Kerry, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, former House majority leader Richard Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as the Democratic leaders, each of them with 15 or 20 percent of the Democratic vote nationally. Throw Hillary's name into those polls and she gets between 37 percent of the vote (ABC News poll) and 48 percent (Quinnipac Institute).

Kerry and the rest drop to single digits. Unfair? Of course. If Bush is in trouble, Kerry and Dean could be the Gene McCarthys of their generation if Hillary decides to be Bobby.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves