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Nervous Democrats Rally Round Hillary Clinton

The precursor organization to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign is known as “Ready for Hillary.”

But in the wake of the controversy over Clinton’s use of private email to conduct official business as secretary of state, some Democrats may be asking, “Is Hillary Ready?”

Clinton’s plan to remain above the early 2016 infighting fell apart this week as she found herself on the defensive over her use of a private email account for official business while secretary of state.

Clinton told a news conference at the United Nations she used a private account “as a matter of convenience” and that she had her own email server at home. Clinton insisted the system was secure and that nothing she did violated the law or government regulations.

“Look, I trust the American people to make their decisions about political and public matters and I feel that I have taken unprecedented steps to provide these work related emails,” she said. “They are going to be in the public domain.”

So is it over? Hardly.

The email setup seemed to counter White House guidelines from 2009 that advised government officials to use government email to conduct official business and to ensure that private accounts preserve written communications that involve official business.

Clinton said she did delete thousands of emails that were personal in nature and not related to her official duties. But that has spurred congressional Republicans to press harder for access to her private email server, pressure that is not likely to go away anytime soon just as the 2016 presidential campaign begins to take shape.

In fact, if anything, the email controversy has allowed some House Republicans to breathe new life into the probe of the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses

Clinton remains a huge favorite for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. A new Gallup Poll found 50 percent of those surveyed have a favorable impression of her compared to 39 percent unfavorable, the best of any of the potential candidates tested.

Clinton has a ready-made base of Democratic women eager for her to run after her disappointing defeat at the hands of then-freshman Senator Barack Obama in 2008. She also has her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who remains a Yoda-like figure within the Democratic Party.

But the email flap raises the issue of trust for voters and is a reminder of Clinton scandals of the past.

“This idea that the Clinton’s are always trying to hide something or they are just not trustworthy or they hate the press or they have locked horns with Republicans,” said Matthew Dallek, an assistant professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

“All these things are just kind of rushing back and I think that is creating some churning in the country, in the Democratic Party and among the media,” he said.

That “churning”-- as Dallek put it -- may have some Democrats wondering if it’s a good idea that Clinton is such a heavy favorite for the party nomination. But the fact is her likely candidacy has scared off a number of potential Democratic contenders who would prefer not to challenge the Clinton machine.

Among the few who have indicated interest are former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb. But none of them are openly criticizing Clinton over the email controversy and even Sanders seemed to be hesitating in an interview with Politico.

Some Democrats are now openly wondering whether it is a good idea to put all their eggs in the Hillary basket without legitimate alternatives in the race. Some of these doubts may ease over time if Clinton has a smooth launch to her campaign. But for now there is more angst among Democrats than one would have predicted just a few months ago.

Jeb Bush’s time of testing

For likely Republican contender Jeb Bush, the challenges seem a bit different.

Like Clinton, the former Florida governor has a famous name, lots of fundraising ability and is a favorite of the party’s mainstream wing. But unlike Clinton, Bush faces what promises to be a large field of Republican contenders, including several from the party’s conservative wing.

Conservatives have been cool to Bush because of his perceived moderation on immigration reform and the education standards known as Common Core.

Bush also will have to overcome skepticism from within his own party about his family name.

Many Republicans, especially younger conservatives, will be looking for a fresh face in the 2016 primaries. Others are concerned Jeb Bush will have trouble overcoming the hangover from the administration of his brother, former President George W. Bush, who left office under a cloud because of the Iraq War and economic problems at home.

Bush has told Republican activists he realizes he will have to chart his own course and addressed the issue during a recent speech on foreign policy in Chicago.

“I love my brother,” Bush said. “I love my dad. I actually love my mother, as well -- I hope that’s OK. And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make. But I am my own man.”

Bush brings both advantages and drawbacks as a potential presidential contender, said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

“There is a lot of resistance to another Bush,” he said. “On the other hand, he has managed to corner the market with many of the big donors and the key staffers. So it is going to be interesting to see if the Republican establishment can power Jeb Bush to the nomination as they did his father and brother.”

Bush can expect a tough grilling from conservative rivals and demands from some Republicans that he show how he is different from the two ex-presidents in his family-his brother and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.

It is an issue that Jeb Bush will have to confront head-on.

“There is this larger sense within the Republican Party that says, 'do we really want somebody from the past?'” said analyst Matt Dallek. “I mean that is the argument that [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker is using against Bush. And the Bush name and all that it implies, I think, fits in very neatly into that attack.”

Clinton versus Bush

Assuming Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination remains clear and Jeb Bush is able to overcome conservative opposition, we could be looking at another Clinton Bush showdown for the White House, echoes of the 1992 election when Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush.

John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center said a lot of voters will not be thrilled by the prospect of another Clinton-Bush race.

“It is hard to be the third of the Bush’s, and perhaps it would be the third Bush to face the second Clinton, which would make some who complain about political dynasties in America very uncomfortable,” Fortier said.

If that happens, both Clinton and Bush will be hard pressed to demonstrate that they are candidates of change.

For Clinton that means picking and choosing how to separate herself from President Barack Obama without alienating the president’s core liberal supporters who were skeptical of Clinton when she ran in 2008. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said voters prefer a candidate for 2016 that will “bring greater changes to current policies.”

Bush, too, will have his challenges, assuming he survives the Republican primary gauntlet better than 2012 nominee Mitt Romney did. Especially on foreign policy and national security matters, Bush will have to thread a fine line that projects a strong U.S. stance against international threats without dredging up the bad feelings about the war in Iraq carried out during his brother’s administration.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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