From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Huma Zaidi
Enter Hillary. In making her 2008 exploratory committee official today, she plants herself at the front lines of President Bush's effort to focus on domestic issues in his upcoming State of the Union address, and the escalating debate over his plan to send more US troops to Iraq.
Borrowing a page from the Bush playbook, Clinton's campaign is trying to cement the perception that she's the inevitable Democratic nominee, not only by setting her up as the party's chief foil to Bush's State of the Union proposals, but also by issuing a stream of e-mails touting her wide leads over her Democratic rivals in national polls. Surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire, on the other hand, show her jostling with former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama. Clinton is expected to visit Iowa this weekend and New Hampshire shortly. New early primaries in big states like California, where better-known and -funded candidates would have an edge, could also help her.
Whether by coincidence or design, Clinton makes her move just as Bush is rolling out a new proposal to address the growing number of Americans who lack adequate health care coverage. His plan, which he'll lay out tomorrow night, entails changing the tax code to give Americans a break for buying their own insurance, and funding that break by taxing pricier employer-funded health plans. (The proposal has already sparked a debate over whether or not it amounts to a tax increase; the White House insists it doesn't.) For Bush, it's his first big foray into health care. For Clinton, it's familiar turf -- though her indisputable knowledge of the subject comes with reminders of her own failed effort to reform the system.
The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows the dichotomy for Bush between looking for common ground on health care and other domestic proposals and his intention to send more troops to Iraq. Per the poll, taken from January 17-20, the cost of health care is Americans' top economic concern. But the poll also shows that if Congress passes a non-binding resolution opposing additional US troops for Iraq, 65% say Bush shouldn't send them. That 65% includes 71% of independents polled.
Not surprisingly, in a speech which White House advisors say will focus on areas of bipartisan concern, Bush isn't expected to expound upon his new strategy for the war. They also say his remarks will be more thematic than detailed. Bush has tended during his presidency to propose broad initiatives and then leave the details up to Congress to work through, although previously, he was handing his initiatives off to a GOP majority. The White House also may be worried about Bush getting less applause than usual. He'll follow up on his address with health care and energy events outside Washington later this week.
But for all his focus on domestic proposals which could receive bipartisan support, Iraq will remain on the front burner. Democratic leaders chose Sen. Jim Webb, whose son is serving in Iraq and who had a widely publicized confrontation with Bush at a recent social gathering, to deliver their response tomorrow night. House Democrats are out of the spotlight for a change, having completed their 100-hours agenda and facing a short work-week because of a scheduled GOP retreat, but the Senate will continue to focus on the war with hearings, resolutions, and a confirmation vote.
This afternoon, Armed Services members John Warner (R), Susan Collins (R), and Ben Nelson (D) will unveil their own bipartisan resolution on Bush's plan to boost US forces in Iraq, reports NBC's Ken Strickland. On Wednesday, the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the non-binding resolution proposed last week by Sens. Joe Biden (D), Chuck Hagel (R), and Carl Levin (D). Bush's proposed Iraq strategy will get more scrutiny tomorrow during the confirmation hearing for Lt. General David Petraeus, Bush's nominee to be the top commander in Iraq. The hearing will give presidential candidates Clinton and John McCain (R) another chance to sound off, Strickland says.
With Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated behind Bush at the podium tomorrow night, the top two Democratic party foils to Bush's speech will be women. The prospect of the first serious woman candidate for the White House also overshadowed the entrance of the first serious Latino candidate, Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who announced his intention to run yesterday. The 2008 presidential field is the most diverse field of viable candidates in US history.