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The coast is clear — for now

Within moments of its on-line publication it was subsumed, overwhelmed by coverage of the nation’s latest sad, if predictable, spectacle — the slaughter of a dozen innocents by a disturbed man at the Washington Navy Yard. Once assured that the violence was contained, however, the political class in Washington turned its eye to a poll freshly released by CNN. And then began linking to it in e-mails to operatives in the 50 states.

And, yes, it’s about our former First Lady, state and federal; our former Secretary of State, the former U.S. senator from New York. But as with most anything involving Hillary Clinton Rodham — hereinafter referred to as Hillary, as even those who despise her long have grown accustomed to first-name usage — the deeper question involves how she might impact politics in Arkansas and the country down to the precinct level.

The various “Draft Hillary” organizations, especially, were ecstatic at the new survey’s numbers. Hillary had been the front-runner for her party’s 2016 nomination since President Obama’s first inauguration day. But the poll strongly suggested that she had not merely weathered the controversy involving a horror that preceded the Navy Yard — the murders of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three associates at Benghazi — but that her popularity among likely Democratic voters had increased. A mid-summer survey for ABC News, the last poll of its size, showed Hillary’s approval rating down several points among all Americans to 61 percent, a figure any candidate would covet. Now, three months later, CNN found Hillary to be the first choice of likely Democratic primary and caucus voters with unprecedented 65 percent support. Her closest competitor was Vice President Biden — at ten percent.

The results when viewed by demographic breakdown reflected a remarkable absence of anomalies; Hillary appealed in equal measure to young and old (though especially old) regardless of education, race, region (including the South), income and education. If the nomination were at stake tomorrow she could simply claim it. But it isn’t. Nor will it be next year, when mid-term congressional elections, and several governorships, will consume the dialogue. Hillary will be making more speeches at $200,000 a pop, but she also will be campaigning for Democratic candidates, accumulating IOUs.

Then the contest will begin in earnest and, assuming she is a contestant, the onslaught will begin. Absent fresh and convincing fuel Benghazi as an issue will continue to wither; already it’s been relegated to low- or no-credibility clowns such as Reps. Michelle Bachmann and Joe Wilson. From this (precipitously) early vantage point that leaves the GOP opposition to morph Hillary-care with Obama-care and to poke at her speechmaking fees (carefully, as Republican oratory can be expensive, too), and to appeal to social conservatives on the God, guns and gays front.

“Her four years as Secretary of State made people realize she is the real deal,” says Vince Insalaco, the new Democratic state chair and a veteran Clinton operative who helped in Hillary’s losing 2008 bid. Insalaco’s first and most formidable priority, though, is helping Sen. Mark Pryor retain his Senate seat, the only one of Arkansas’s six congressional positions still in Democratic hands, and winning back the state House of Representatives from the GOP. But in a brief interview Insalaco pointed to the division within the Republican Party — the knife fight between the “traditional” and Tea Party wings over fiscal policy — and its potential for the mid-term battles and beyond.

“Are they really going to shut the government down” to try to thwart health care reform? Insalaco reflects. “The impact on the ‘14 cycle could be major.”

Things can change, certainly, but few doubt that congressional Republicans are behind the eight ball. And let’s be clear: the public gives both parties failing grades for management. But the same survey (among many others) that set Hillary fans swooning gave Democrats a measurably better mark than their rivals.

The GOP’s internal discord is reflected in the absence of anything resembling a front-runner in the CNN survey, which, in fact, highlighted the schism. At 17 percent support New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, inclined to compromise, is tied with Rep. Paul Ryan, the take-no-prisoners deficit hawk. Interestingly, the same ideologies are reflected in the third- and fourth-place names, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the former a relative moderate, the latter a Tea Party champion.

No one including, one suspects, Hillary knows if she will enter the presidential race. For now it’s enough for her, and her partisans, that she is not not running. The coast is clear only until and unless she commits.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.