WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton may be the Democrat who Republicans love to hate, but some Republican strategists say they have no fear of a match-up with her rival Barack Obama in November’s presidential election.
Many Republicans have long believed Clinton, the polarizing New York senator and former first lady with the high negative ratings, would make an easier White House foe by energizing conservatives and alienating independents.
But Republicans say the relentless Democratic nominating battle has given them new hope for November and exposed weaknesses in Obama that will play a central role in any general election campaign against the Illinois senator.
“I believe he has a glass jaw — and he is going to get hit hard,” said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.
Obama’s voting record in the U.S. Senate — one magazine ranked him the most liberal senator in 2007 — and during his years in the Illinois state Senate will get a more thorough examination in a campaign against Republican John McCain than it has so far, he said.
“He portrays himself as a centrist and a moderate, but if you look at his votes it’s tough to see anything but a liberal. He is more liberal than Hillary Clinton,” Fabrizio said.
The questions raised by Clinton about Obama’s lack of experience and suitability as commander in chief will be revitalized, Republicans say, as will the controversy about inflammatory comments by Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Coupling that with Obama’s weakness among blue-collar Democrats and Hispanics, and the possibility of a prolonged nominating fight that turns off Clinton backers and independents, Republicans are gaining confidence about a November race against Obama.
“Originally people thought Hillary would be better to run against only because she generated so much ill will among the Republican base,” said Republican consultant Rich Galen.
“But I don’t think professional politicians on the Republican side have a rooting interest anymore because it doesn’t matter. We can beat either one. We just wish the election was tomorrow,” he said.
The question of who gives Democrats the best chance in November is central to the battle between Clinton and Obama as they woo superdelegates — the party insiders and elected officials who are free to back any candidate and are likely to decide the tight race.
The two campaigns have waged a war of words, memos and conference calls with reporters to make their case. The Clinton campaign says she is a known quantity with proven success in big swing states and with key constituencies like women, Catholics and Hispanics.
Clinton was heartened by a Quinnipiac University poll this week that showed her beating McCain in three key swing states — Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida — and running better against him than Obama. “The polls are reflecting the arguments we’re making,” Clinton strategist Mark Penn said.
The Obama campaign says he would rewrite the electoral map, bringing in new voters and drawing independents and some Republicans in a broad coalition that would also help Democrats in other races around the country.
“We are going to put more states in play than Senator Clinton,” said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, adding Obama “would provide the best atmosphere for down ballot candidates.”
But the Clinton campaign leaped to highlight recent comments in The New York Times Sunday magazine by Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who heads the Republican party’s efforts to elect House of Representatives members. He said he thought Clinton would be the stronger candidate.
“He’s ideologically well to the left of Hillary Clinton, for all his rhetorical gifts, and I also think he’s got a national security deficit,” Cole said.
“I think she’s a plausible commander in chief, and I don’t think he is. It may not matter. But those two areas are where we would fight the election, and with McCain, I think we contrast with him very well,” he said.
Republicans have been successful at painting Democratic candidates like Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 as too liberal and out of step with everyday voters. But part of Obama’s appeal has been his promise to rise above partisan divisions.
Fabrizio said there were dangers for Republicans in Obama’s ability to attract new voters and increase turnout, but his record in Illinois on topics like sex education, crime and spending would be fertile territory for researchers.
“In order to bring out those new voters, you have to maintain the same level of excitement. If Obama gets tarnished, that excitement is going to wane” among those voters, Fabrizio said.
“What more are you going to tell the American people about Hillary Clinton? But most Americans didn’t even know Barack Obama eight months ago, and there is so much more for them to know.”
(Editing by David Wiessler)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:blogs.reuters.com/trail08/