By Niall Stanage - 06/10/13 09:00 AM EDT
That one-word question hangs over both parties as the 2016 presidential race comes into focus. [WATCH VIDEO]
For Democrats, the former secretary of State looms over everything, a female Gulliver among Lilliputian rivals.
“Doubts about the GOP as a viable force in presidential elections will be far more justifiable if the party loses a third straight presidential election,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia.
In contrast to Clinton’s dominance among Democrats, the battle for the GOP nomination is wide-open. Those who appear to be readying a White House run are taking markedly different approaches in terms of how they treat the Democratic frontrunner.
Some potential contenders have set about proving, in ostentatious fashion, that they are willing to attack the former first lady head-on.
Last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spoke in the first-to-caucus state of Iowa and lit into Clinton over last year’s attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed.
“First question to Hillary Clinton: Where in the hell were the Marines?” Paul said. The same morning, Paul had published an opinion article in The Washington Times in which he had asserted that Clinton “should never hold high office again.”
At a January Senate hearing, Paul had told Clinton that had he been president, “I would have relieved you of your post.”
Paul’s speech at the Iowa Republican Party’s Lincoln Dinner was prefaced by remarks from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “The process of selecting the next leader of the free world begins in Iowa, and it’s already begun,” King told the audience.
Going after Clinton scores big with the GOP base and helps attract donors. But ripping her also poses risks, especially when the Republican Party is trying to court female voters.
Still, other possible GOP candidates have demonstrated their willingness to lock horns with Clinton. During an appearance on Fox News last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) alleged there were political motivations at play in the explanations initially given by the Obama administration for the Benghazi attack.
“What I think is sad is how many people were around the administration — including the former secretary of State, Secretary Clinton — [who] knew this to be the case and allowed this to move forward anyway,” he added.
Not everyone has adopted such a confrontational stance. In January, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested on “Meet the Press” that a Clinton administration would have done more to address the United States’ fiscal problems than Obama has done.
“Look, if we had a Clinton presidency ... I think we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now,” Ryan said. “That’s not the kind of presidency we’re dealing with right now.”
(It was not wholly clear whether Ryan was referring to Hillary Clinton or her husband, the former president. But as a CBS News report noted, “it was eminently clear that he thought both Clintons would be better fiscal stewards than Obama.”)
In April, there were some murmurs of interest from the media when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Clinton delivered speeches in Dallas on the same day, albeit at different locations. But Bush took no shots at Clinton, nor vice versa.
An even more high-profile match-up occurs later this week. Clinton and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will attend the Clinton Global Initiative summit in Chicago. Clinton will speak on Thursday, Christie on Friday.
Christie has bolstered his bipartisan credentials over the past year, most famously with two high-profile joint appearances touring the Sandy-damaged Jersey Shore with President Obama.
The Christie-Obama relationship has helped the governor’s reelection chances this year, but it will hurt him in states like Iowa and South Carolina if he seeks the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Some in the GOP have a more specific concern: If the ever-combative New Jerseyan found himself in a presidential contest with Clinton, would he keep his temper under control? And, if not, just how damaging could that be against a female candidate?
When then-Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) was Clinton’s opponent in a 2000 Senate race, he attracted criticism for invading Clinton’s personal space during a televised debate. It is easy to imagine Christie doing or saying something much more aggressive.
Still, some Republican strategists caution that it is important not to let Clinton get too deep into the party’s collective head.
Asked if her possible participation made it more important for the GOP to choose a seasoned candidate, former Rick Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley demurred.
“No. Barack Obama wasn’t seasoned and he took her apart,” he replied.
But Gidley added, “Hillary Clinton is a force to be reckoned with. Any Republican who says she’s going to be dead in the water because of Benghazi, or because of Bill Clinton, or because of whatever: They are sorely mistaken.”
There are, nevertheless, plenty of suspicions on the GOP side that Clinton will, indeed, be damaged by Benghazi.
“There are still a lot of questions about how Hillary ultimately emerges from the Benghazi investigation,” conservative strategist Keith Appell said. “Everyone among conservatives right now is thinking about Hillary as someone who could be in real trouble.”
Others point to the fact that Clinton’s fortunes are tied to those of Obama, and to the country’s economic progress between now and 2016.
If things are booming by then, even the strongest GOP candidate would face an uphill battle. But if the recovery fails to maintain a head of steam, public patience with the Democrats could run out.
“If she chooses to run, she is going to be awful tough to beat in the Democratic nominating process,” said veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins.
“Whether she is a viable candidate in the general depends an awful lot on what happens to Obama. One thing’s certain, though: If she runs, she will raise the money and she will get the staff.”
One other thing is certain, too.
“Hillary’s shadow looms over this field,” Kondik said. “On both sides.”