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Carving up the Kerry vote

HILLARY RODHAM Clinton continues to dissect John Kerry's political base like a frog in a biology class.

Slice. On March 16, New York's junior senator hosted a group of women, most from Massachusetts, for dinner at her Washington home on Embassy Row.

She wowed them in a house filled with intimate family photographs, including one showcasing Hillary and Bill Clinton gazing adoringly into each other's eyes. During a dinner of salad and fish, Clinton spoke briefly about her recent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight over Social Security, and other top Washington policy issues. Then she turned the evening over to questions from her guests, who of course asked about her plans for 2008. Of course, she told her guests she is focusing on her 2006 Senate race.

Barbara Lee, a Boston philanthropist, Democratic activist, and John Kerry supporter in 2004, hosted the day of support for Clinton in Washington. Lee says she, too, is focused first on helping Clinton win reelection in 2006, but notes, ''My life's mission is to elect a woman president. She would be a great president. If the country gets lucky, Hillary will be president in '08.''

Slice. Last week, Ann Lewis, a longtime Democratic activist who is now director of communications for Hillary Clinton's political action committee, told the Forward, a weekly New York City-based newspaper aimed at a largely Jewish audience that the Kerry campaign had ''a different message every two or three weeks.'' Lewis also told the newspaper that the Kerry campaign ''kept trying to rationally convince, to put a presidency together, line by line, plan by plan'' and people ''don't vote for plans, they vote for presidents.''

As she slices up the traditional Democratic base, Clinton is also reaching out to the middle, seeking common ground on contentious issues from war to abortion. It is an early, but impressive show of political gamesmanship. And it is all happening while the rest of the Democratic pack of presidential possibilities train their arrows mainly at President Bush and Republicans in Congress.

Clinton's reaching out to women in Kerry's home state for her 2006 Senate race is smart politics for 2008. It points out how difficult it would be for both to run for president.

For liberal women, the lure of backing a female presidential candidate is powerful, one that would be difficult for Kerry or any male Democrat to neutralize. Moreover, if Clinton does run for the Democratic nomination, Kerry would also be fighting off another US senator from the Northeast.

Meanwhile, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, who is also contemplating a presidential run, is also taking shots at Kerry, most recently in a New Yorker article, where he used the ''w'' word -- ''weak'' -- in connection with Kerry. Shoving Kerry out of the '08 contest makes it easier for Biden, who doesn't need another veteran male senator in the race, especially one who begins with the national constituency Kerry built as the last Democratic presidential nominee.

Asked about the prospect of Massachusetts Democrats, especially women, being forced to choose between Kerry and Clinton, Barbara Lee says, ''I think it's too early to tell. There is a long time between now and '08.''

In October 2005, Lee will host a Boston event for Democratic female US senators including Clinton, Dianne Feinstein of California, Deborah Stabenow of Michigan, and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Lee hosted a similar event in 2003, during which Clinton drew the most attention. ''She is a rock star. She captures the room,'' says Lee.

While that is certainly true in Massachusetts and New York, Clinton has a tougher audience elsewhere in the country. She still must prove the leftover baggage from the Clinton White House years won't trip her up.

Clinton and Kerry are both catching criticism for ducking the matter of Terri Schiavo, although they are hardly alone in that. The Senate passed the bill to bring her case back to court on a voice vote, with only three members present. That, however, is general election not Democratic primary fodder.

Some conservative commentators are beginning to speculate that Clinton will not seek reelection to the US Senate in 2006. The theory, advanced by John Podhoretz in the New York Post, suggests that Clinton would not want to take votes in the Senate that could be used against her as a presidential candidate, which happened to Kerry during his presidential quest.

But at the moment, Clinton is concentrating on the base that lifted Kerry up, while letting others talk about the obstacles that blocked his path to the White House. Slice.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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