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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Breaking a self-imposed gag rule, President George W. Bush is predicting Democrat Hillary Clinton will win her party's presidential nomination but lose to the Republican nominee in the November 2008 election.
"I think our candidate can beat her, but it's going to be a tough race," Bush said in an interview for "The Evangelical President," a book by a reporter for The Examiner newspaper of Washington, Bill Sammon.
The Examiner published a story about the book on Monday, including details of a June 26 interview Sammon had with Bush.
Bush said he thought the former first lady would defeat top Democratic challengers Barack Obama and John Edwards because "she's got a national presence, and this is becoming a national primary."
"And therefore the person with the national presence, who has got the ability to raise enough money to sustain an effort in a multiplicity of sites, has got a good chance to be nominated," he said.
Bush, who replaced Clinton's husband Bill in the White House in 2001, had vowed not to become "pundit in chief" by answering questions about the campaign.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush changed his mind because "it's difficult to not talk about the '08 election. There's a lot of interest in it. And it does have consequence."
"The bottom line is that it really doesn't matter what the president thinks about who will win the Democratic primary. There's going to be a showdown at the O.K. Corral and they'll figure out who's going to be the nominee," she said, adding that Bush plans to campaign vigorously for the Republican.
Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York, has held a wide lead in the polls over Obama, a senator from Illinois, and Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, for months.
"It sounds like the president is reading the same polls as everyone else," said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.
But the Edwards camp took issue with Bush's comments.
"Putting aside Bush's lack of political acumen, Democrats, Republicans and independents are looking for a nominee and a president who will deliver honest leadership and real change, and there is no candidate better able to deliver that John Edwards," said Edwards spokeswoman Colleen Murray.
Many Republicans believe Clinton will be seen as a divisive figure and will serve to unite Republicans disenchanted by Bush's presidency.
"I will work to see to it that a Republican wins and therefore don't accept the premise that a Democrat will win. I truly think the Republicans will hold the White House," Bush said.
He has not publicly expressed a Republican preference but according to a report in The Washington Post on Saturday, Bush has privately expressed surprise that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has managed to remain the front-runner despite his liberal positions on social and cultural issues normally critical to the party's conservative base.
He told visiting news anchors two weeks ago that Giuliani's strength showed how important the terrorism issue is to Republican voters, the Post said.