Is Bubba Hedging His Bets For ’08?

Though the pundits have all but ordained her as the Democrats’ next presidential nominee, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Publicly at least, the junior Senator from New York still insists she hasn’t made up her mind about a presidential run. But while her coy denials and growing war chest have kept many Democratic opponents on the sidelines, at least one party poobah has not been shy about checking out her competition. Sources close to the Democratic National Committee claim that Bill Clinton has recently held a series of secret meetings with Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a much-hyped party moderate who is rapidly emerging as his wife’s most significant challenger for the Democratic nomination.

The affable, press-friendly Warner recently sealed his star status in the party after engineering the election of his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, to take his place in the governor’s mansion, handing the Dems one of their most significant electoral victories in traditionally red-state Virginia earlier this month. Sources say the former president has grown enamored of Warner, a detail-oriented policy wonk who, like Clinton, rose to prominence as the moderate governor of a conservative Southern state.

Even as she fights off competition from the right, Hillary has other problems to worry about. As a host of prospective opponents, including senators John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, have lined up to demand a swift departure from Iraq, Mrs. Clinton’s stay-the-course message has eroded her support among the party’s progressives. Furious over her refusal to join a growing chorus of Democratic voices calling for an immediate withdrawal, a few leading party doves are accusing the former first lady of putting politics before principle in an effort to cultivate New York’s Jewish vote.

“I think a lot of Democrats were surprised when she said that we should stay in Iraq at least through the December Iraqi elections,” says one high-level party insider. “But you can’t win New York State without the support of the state’s pro-Israel Jewish community.” While pundits claim that Democrat contendors historically need two thirds of the Jewish vote in New York to win a Senate campaign, Clinton received a mere 53 percent in her 2000 run against Rick Lazio–a scare she presumably doesn’t want to see repeated.

But the senator’s supporters dismiss this charge as “ridiculous,” pointing out that polls show that the state’s Jewish community is as divided about the war as the general electrorate is. “It’s just race baiting,” claims an aggreived Clinton pal who is outraged by the Washington whisper campaign. “Their justified opposition to the war has caused them to adopt the GOP’s worst tactics, but the poll numbers disprove the whole theory.”

Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, reps for the Clintons and Governor Warner could not be reached for comment.

Previously: Democrats, Start Your Engines

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