Clinton-Clark in 2004?

Asked about political chatter that Hillary might enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, ex-President Clinton volunteered, “That’s a decision for her to make.”

And that has set the cat down among the pigeons.

For, presumably, Hillary had already decided. And the answer was an unqualified “no.” During the 2000 election, and again and again since, she has pledged to New Yorkers she will serve out her full Senate term and run for re-election in 2006.

A “Second Thoughts” conference appears to be going on in the Clinton household about the wisdom of waiting five more years to return to a White House from which they were evicted in Y2K.

Why may the Clintons be taking another look at 2004?

First, no clear front-runner has emerged from the Democratic field. Second, polls show Hillary would be the strongest candidate Democrats could run against President Bush and she could win the nomination. A Quinnipiac survey, taken before Gen. Wesley Clark entered, showed Hillary would snag 45 percent of the Democratic primary vote, with her nine rivals in single digits.

Third, centrist Democrats appear alarmed that Howard Dean could be painted by the Bush campaign in such lurid colors that Democrats could suffer the kind of thrashing in 2004 they took during the Reagan Decade. In three presidential elections in the 1980s, Democrats never once won more than 10 states. Against an incumbent Reagan in 1984, they won Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

The big impediment in the way of a Hillary run is her solemn pledge not to run. Breaking his pledge back in Arkansas in 1991 did not faze Bill, but it apparently does bother the former first lady.

But Bill is out testing the water for her, saying publicly he has run into New Yorkers who would readily release Hillary from her pledge, if she would save the country from George Bush. But then, it was not Bill or those New Yorkers who made the commitment to serve out her term.

Another sign the Clintons are considering a run is the presence of numerous old Clinton-Gore hands in the Clark campaign. Of the general himself, Bill says, “He is brilliant, he is brave, he is good, and he has a sack full of guts.”

Is Wesley Clark a placeholder for Hillary? Is his campaign the recruiting office for her campaign? And is his reward to be the vice presidential nomination, or secretary of state or defense, in a Hillary Rodham Clinton administration?

There are other reasons to believe Bill does not want to wait until 2008. An observer who saw him work that black church in Los Angeles with Gray Davis found him “at the top of his game.”

Is Bill the sort of patient, deferential fellow ready to wait five years, with all that can happen, before making history again by aiding his wife in the recapture of the White House, and thereby vindicating him? Does he really want to risk the possibility that Howard Dean, or another Democrat, could accomplish what he himself did in 1992: defeat a president thought to be unbeatable a year earlier?

If another Democrat is elected in 2004, Bill and Hill are history. For that president would eclipse Bill for the next four years and run for re-election in 2008, shouldering Hillary aside until 2012, when she would be 65 and Bill would be a senior citizen on full Social Security.

What would Hillary risk by exercising her female prerogative, changing her mind and running for the nomination?

Her reputation for ruthless ambition would be confirmed, and her credibility shredded. As she campaigned, radio and cable talk shows would be playing, with mocking regularity, her pledge not to run. It would be the political equivalent of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 “Read-my-lips-no-new-taxes!” pledge, rerun again and again in ’92.

Second, it would anger and alienate all those Democrats — Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards — who took Hillary at her word and ran on the assumption she would not get in. Supporters of Howard Dean, full of fire and passion, would see her entry as a “Stop Dean!” exercise, cheating them of a nomination they had virtually won.

Third, were Hillary to be crushed by George W. in 2004, the defeat might end all prospects of a run in 2008, which looks to be a better year for a Democrat.

Yet, whatever may be said against Hillary, the lady does not lack for nerve. Some of us thought she would never dare to try to become senator from a state where she had never lived.

Clinton-Clark in 2004? Not a bad bet, if you can get some odds.