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Gary Younge
Will she, won't she? It's decision time for Hillary

"I can't stand that woman," says one.

"I don't know. Maybe we could all take a page from her book," responds another.

"What, to be humiliated in public, and then walk around smiling all the time? That is so false."

"All I know is she stuck by him and put up with the shit and in the end, what did she do? She set up her own little thing."

"She took all that negative shit he gave her, and spun it into gold. You got to give her credit."

"She is a role model for all of us," the third concludes.

The former first lady and current New York senator, Hillary Clinton, 56, is as popular as she is divisive. Asked to pick out words that best describe her, members of the public chose "intelligent" and "smart". The third word, pollsters at the Pew Research Centre said, is a pejorative term that "rhymes with rich".

With nine candidates standing for the Democratic presidential nomination, polls continue to show Ms Clinton as the favourite. The trouble is she is not one of the nine. But despite her insistence that she is not running, many people believe she could yet throw her hat in the ring. Friday marks the deadline for entering the Democratic primaries; this week is her last chance to change her mind.

The political logic behind her refusal is sound. While President George Bush's approval ratings are falling fast, he remains the favourite for 2004. He is the incumbent, he has raised an unprecedented amount of money and has wrapped his presidency in the flag. No clear frontrunner has emerged from the current field of Democratic contenders.

Moreover, for Ms Clinton to abandon her six-year Senate term would make her look like a dilettante carpetbagger.

But she has not ruled out ever running for the White House. Keeping her powder dry until 2008, when Mr Bush would have to stand down, would give her a better shot and her entry into elected politics would look less like a smash-and-grab raid on the presidency. Although five of the 11 post-second world war presidents were over 60 when they took the oath, the common view remains that she would be too old at 65 in 2012.

There is little doubt that if Ms Clinton were to stand (this year or any year) she would act as a polarising figure. A Quinnipiac University Institute poll, released last month, showed that even though she is not running, 43% of Democratic voters support her - her closest adversary was General Wesley Clark with 10%. Meanwhile, an ABC news poll last summer found that 71% of conservative Republicans "felt strongly" about their "unfavourable" feelings towards her.

"Just as Hillary-haters say she is the archetype of the kind of woman they don't like, so for those who love her she represents the archetype of the kind of woman they find inspiring and exemplary," says Michael Tomasky, executive editor of American Prospect and author of Hillary's Turn: Inside her Improbable Victorious Senate Campaign.

Even her professed decision not to stand is polarising - prompting elaborate conspiracy theories among Republicans. Asked why the polling institute keeps putting her name to the public when it would not appear on the ballot, Maurice Carroll, director of Quinnipiac, says: "You have to keep asking it, because she is still a big factor."

When, not if

Her decision to accept the role of MC at last Saturday's Democratic party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa - a key event in a state where the candidates rally the faithful - is a case in point. "She would not come to MC this dinner if there was a ghost of a chance that she was going to run," the state party chairman, Gordon Fischer, told the Washington Post before the event.

To others her appearance in the state at this time is evidence that there is still a chance. "It is now unlikely that she will enter the primaries but we are not going to give up trying to persuade her until the convention is over," says Adam Parkhomenko, head of votehillary.org, which was collecting signatures to draft Ms Clinton outside the dinner on Saturday.

While her views do not differ from the more moderate candidates in the race (she backed the war in Iraq) she has other attributes in her favour. "She has name recognition. She's better than all the other candidates and most importantly she can beat Bush," says Mr Parkhomenko.

Republicans, however, are convinced that the entire Democratic race thus far is little more than a dramatic ruse to get another Clinton in the Oval Office. Such theories start at the fringes, with the rightwing polemicist Carl Limbacher, whose book Hillary's Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton's Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House details Ms Clinton's plans for a "grand political coup" to take the White House in 2004.

But they end up in the mainstream. William Safire, a New York Times columnist, believes Mr Clark's decision to stand was part of a plot to hold a slot open for Ms Clinton. "If Bush stumbles and the Democratic nomination becomes highly valuable the Clintons probably think they would be able to get Clark to step aside without splintering the party, rewarding his loyalty with second place on the ticket," he wrote.

"That's an absurd feat of imagination," said Ms Clinton in response.

While Democrats may love her and Republicans loathe her, both, it seems, need her to energise their base support. And while they may disagree on what she stands for, few doubt the issue is when, rather than whether, she puts her name forward for America's top job.

"She can try and win in 2004 or she can hope that the Democrats nominate a respectable loser this time around and stand in 2008," says Maurice Carroll. "By 2012 she's on social security and its over."

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