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Hillary Clinton's Presidential Chess Board

Hillary Clinton's decision on whether to run for president in 2016 will ripple across the presidential candidate fields in both parties.
Ben Margot

If the jockeying before the 2016 presidential race is a game of political chess, the most powerful queen on the board would obviously be Hillary Clinton.

So much of what will happen in 2016 hinges on Clinton's decision on whether to run, which she has said she'll announce by the end of this year.

If the former secretary of state and New York senator enters the race, she reduces the space on the board for any competitors within her own party. That would be particularly true for the Democratic women mentioned as possibilities for national office.

Vice President Joe Biden or Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, both of whom have the presidential itch, could still decide to run with Clinton in the race. They haven't closed the door to a challenge, and might argue that a contested primary is a necessary endeavor, if only to give Democrats a choice.

What's more, says Lorena Chambers, a Democratic political consultant and principal of Chambers Lopez Strategies, told It's All Politics that someone like O'Malley might feel the need to challenge Clinton in the primaries in order to be considered for her veep spot.

It could come down to someone in O'Malley's position "thinking, 'Yes, there's no way potentially I could win the primaries and caucuses. But certainly I could show my strength and be able to prove to Secretary Clinton that I'm formidable and can really help on the ticket.' It would be a very cordial debate and back and forth. Everyone on the Democratic side would be as unified as they could be considering they were ostensibly running against each other in the primary."

The most prominent other Democratic female prospects not named Clinton, on the other hand, signed a private letter last year urging the former secretary of state to run. So Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are on record encouraging the former first lady to get in the race. That doesn't preclude them from challenging Clinton, but if one of them turned around and ran, the move would risk being viewed as treachery.

In any case, they wouldn't find much running room: The shadow Clinton campaign, which has been unofficially underway since last year, is locking up fundraisers, donors and campaign operatives.

Ready for Hillary and Priorities USA have joined forces to provide Clinton with a campaign-in-waiting.

A Clinton decision to run would also likely force a reaction on the Republican side.

So far, there's no evidence suggesting there's a top Republican female candidate raising money or putting together a team for a potential presidential run.

That means a Clinton candidacy would focus attention on what, at the moment, is shaping up as an all-male GOP field. And that would increase pressure on the Republican nominee to name a woman as a running mate.

"Whether she runs or not, GOPers would be smart to have someone other than a white male on the ticket," said Becki Donatelli, a Republican consultant. "John McCain was right in his tactics by picking Sarah Palin. The strategy of the pick was sound — someone new, exciting and different. And even though you are not seeing women queue up to run for president [on the Republican side], I suspect you will see several women or people of some ethnic minority on the VP short list — seriously on the list — and not for show."

Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma are names that keep coming up.

(Martinez is already getting a taste of 2016-style scrutiny. A Mother Jones profile just out portrays her as vindictive and having alienated many Republicans in her state. In another 2016 touch, the Democratic National Committee made sure to email the story to journalists.)

There's the possibility that Clinton won't run, of course, as unlikely as that now seems given all the attention she's getting and her well-known ambition.

But if, for whatever reason, Clinton decides against running, that would set off a scramble on the Democratic side resembling a 19th-century land rush.

"All hell breaks loose," Chambers said. "It is just a free-for-all in a way we haven't seen in a very long time, at least not on our side, the Democratic side."

That would open the field for some of those aforementioned Democratic women. One or more could try to attract disappointed members of Clinton's Democratic base, especially women.

Chambers doesn't think Democratic women would necessarily rally behind another Democratic woman if Clinton chooses not to run. That's because there is no other woman who will be able to capture Democratic hearts and minds anywhere close to the way Clinton can.

Chambers can just as easily see Democrats getting behind a man, perhaps O'Malley, who might then choose a female running mate, someone like California Attorney General , for instance.

"When you talk about chess, literally, the queen has this virtual power," Chambers said. "And no one can replace it. Once you get the queen, it's done. So I don't think we can pull this chess piece out and put another chess piece in to take the queen's place. I don't think Secretary Clinton is replaceable as a woman."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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