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Barack Star

This is going to be So Much Fun.

Say what you will about the downsides of a Hillary Clinton v. BarackObama smack-down; it has already delivered a shot of adrenaline tothe oh-so-jaded journalists who cover--and shape--the presidentialelection season.

Case in point: Last Wednesday, almost by accident, I found myselfwith a front-row seat for Hillary's press conference about herrecent jaunt to Iraq/ Afghanistan/Pakistan with Indiana SenatorEvan Bayh and New York Representative John McHugh. The Senate TVstudio was a zoo. In drooling anticipation of the senator'sarrival, a couple hundred reporters crammed together tighter than acan full of Pringles, with many more hovering just beyond the door,prompting multiple Hill veterans to marvel at how they had never,ever seen the place so crazy--not even during impeachment. Justthink about that for a moment: Even before announcing herpresidential plans, Hillary was already drawing bigger crowds thanBill did after getting busted playing hide-the-cigar with Monica.Now that is star power.

As the mob continued to swell, the head of the gallery beganfreaking out and demanding order--threatening not to allow anysenators into the room until the assembled group could behaveitself. Cameramen, sweating profusely, crawled over one another insearch of a clear shot. Outlying journalists began elbowing theirway in. Someone cracked a joke about the fire marshal, and, for afew uneasy moments, my mind strayed to the annual news reports ofMuslim pilgrims being trampled to death during the hajj.

Then, suddenly, there she was, resplendent in a long, red jacket,black slacks, and sensible pumps. The whir of 10,000 camerashutters clicking simultaneously could be heard all the way downPennsylvania Avenue in the Oval Office (metaphorically, if notliterally). With the formal, almost regal bearing that I suspectshe'll need to play down on the campaign trail, Hillary crossed thedais first, stepping past the podium to allow Bayh to handle allthe how-do-you-dos and here's-what-we'll-be-talking-abouts. With hiseternally polite, scrupulously attentive manner, Bayh couldn't helpbut look a bit like Hillary's courtier. Which started me wonderingif Bayh's recent, unexpected announcement that he would not berunning for president himself (less than two weeks after forming anexploratory committee, mind you) had anything to do with hints fromTeam Hillary regarding her future plans for a running mate. (Thoughnever a top-tier potus contender, Bayh has long been regarded as anideal number two.) To avoid starting any rumors, let me stress thatI've heard no such rumblings. Still, the two Senate centrists domake a lovely political couple.

During her portion of the presentation, Hillary introduced hercontribution to the flood of congressional resolutions beingfloated in opposition to Bush's absurd "surge" plan for Iraq. Hersis a relatively ambitious proposal, which includes capping trooplevels, tying funding for Iraqi security forces to certainbenchmarks, and placing a raft of other benchmarks on both theIraqi government and the Bush administration. Nobody's fool, sheacknowledged that her proposal has about as much chance of passageas a pro-gay marriage bill in Dixie and that it is largely, asABC's Jake Tapper put it to her, "a threat." Nonetheless, she feelsthat the proposal provides an opportunity to send a strong messageto the White House that it had better get its act together. Fast.

The event, meanwhile, provided the political media a perfectopportunity to dissect precisely how Hillary is holding up in theseearly days of Obamania. (When her presser was postponed for a day,the move was immediately spun by the media as an attempt to avoidsharing the spotlight with her Senate colleague, who launched hisexploratory committee Tuesday morning.) Did she seem surly? Tense?Spoiling for a fight? Not especially. Hillary has one of thosefaces that, at rest, often seems cloudy and formidable. It may havesomething to do with the heavy-lidded eyes, which can give her abit of a lizard look. But, when the senator gets going on a topic,she visibly warms up. (On the trail, aides would do well to figureout a way for her to look pleasantly engaged during those countlesshours in which she'll be standing around listening to introductoryspeakers sing her praises.) In this case, she even managed a wryquip or two about the unlikelihood of her measure going anywhereanytime soon.

Even so, it was hard to tell if the glint in Hillary's pale eyes wasone of satisfaction or irritation as she surveyed a journalisticmob that has, of late, been according Obama the same rock startreatment it grants her. As Democratic media consultant Anita Dunnnotes, "Of all the challenges she has anticipated and prepared for,there was no way to anticipate or prepare for this one: thecandidate whose celebrity value now matches her own, whose booksales match her own, and whose ability to command media attentionnearly at will arguably matches her own." Plus, he looks way hotterin a swimsuit. With Senator Sexy in the mix, Clinton suddenly goesfrom being the iconic figure in the race to looking like "a muchmore conventional pick," observes a veteran of Bill Clinton'scampaign team. "The central irony of her predicament is that we areon the cusp of potentially electing the first woman president of theUnited States--and she is not the candidate historically breakingthe glass ceiling or the candidate with all the excitement andenergy." On a more strategic level, Obama has certain obviousassets that could eat away not only at Hillary's share of womenvoters (That voice! That charm! Those chats with Oprah!) but alsoat her share of black voters, who have proved so vital to herfamily's political fortunes. "Hillary Clinton's secret weapon allalong was that her husband was adored by the African Americancommunity," notes the Clinton campaign veteran. "It was my sensethat this was the ace up their sleeve." But, now, Obama all butguarantees that the black vote will be "less monolithic."

So what's an ambitious, hard-charging girl to do? For starters, playthe experience card. Thus far, the biggest question mark aboutObama is whether he's too green to sit in the big chair. If you'repart of Team Hillary, Democratic strategist Kenneth Baer says, thequestion you want voters asking of Obama is, "Where's the beef?" Atthe same time, Clinton's people must face head- on their owncandidate's negatives--such as all those pesky "electability"questions about her tough, polarizing persona--and find a way tospin them as positives. In a recent "Campaign Memo" posted on theexploratory committee's website, Hillary strategist Mark Penn wenton at length about how the senator is leading in the early pollsdespite enduring years of ugly, partisan attacks. In other words:What could the opposition possibly throw at us that we haven'talready dealt with? Obama, by comparison, falls squarely into thecategory of those Penn derided for never having been "in thecrossfire." Hillary is "doing what she needs to do," says Dunn."Defining the race on her terms: `in to win.' And she's neverbacked down, and she's the only one who knows how to beat them."

Now, my assumption going into this Hillary-Obama madness was thatthe two principals would be awash in media coverage while the restof their colleagues wallowed in obscurity. But so immense is thecelebrity radiated by these two that some of their colleagues mayalso, on occasion, accidentally benefit from its reflected glory.Take Senator Joe Biden, for instance, who, despite having announcedhis presidential candidacy close to three dozen times, has beenhard- pressed to get reporters to care--much less to stalk him forsurfside beefcake pics. But at the Hillary presser, Biden, alongwith colleagues Carl Levin and Chuck Hagel, found themselves in thehappy position of having booked the Senate TV studio for thehalf-hour block immediately preceding her event in order toannounce their own anti-Bush-plan Iraq resolution. This meant thatreporters looking to secure a good seat for the main act came earlyfor the Biden/Levin/ Hagel opener. Even if Biden only got a handfulof extra stories out of the coincidence, he clearly enjoyed all theextra attention.

And talk about a lawmaker who hit the jackpot. Hillary travelingbuddy McHugh must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. Anutterly unknown legislator who, earlier in the week, appropriatelyhad been dubbed "Congressman McWHO?" by The Washington Post's DanaMilbank, the New York rep looked ready to expire from happiness ashe shared his thoughts and feelings with the assembled throng. Itis a safe bet that, barring McHugh someday getting caught havingsex in the House cloakroom with an underage page, never again willhe have the attention of so many members of the Fourth Estate.

Of course, not everyone will wind up a winner. Even as journalistswere assembling for Biden's pre-Hillary event, John Kerry was downon the floor of the Senate, holding forth on some random subject.Alone. With little more than the Senate recorder to keep himcompany.

As I said, this is going to be fun.