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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 October 2007, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Clinton stands out from the crowd
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

Hillary Clinton was always going to be at the centre of the 2008 US presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton appears very comfortable in the limelight

As the first woman with a real chance of becoming America's commander-in-chief - and the first former first lady running for the White House - the historical possibilities of her candidacy have had little trouble catching the imagination, either in the US or abroad.

But in recent weeks, a funny thing has happened. This already unique candidate has begun to stand out from the crowd even more.

Three months before the Republican and Democratic primaries, the New York senator's name seems to be dominating the race - in both parties.

Her overall third quarter fundraising total of $27m (13.2m) - an impressive figure in what is usually a fallow fundraising time - capped a period in which she appeared on all the main Sunday morning talk shows and was publicly anointed as the likely Democratic nominee by leading Republicans from US President George W Bush down to the candidates vying to succeed him.

The post-debate discussion [was] about whether the frequently-heard Clinton laugh (or 'Clinton cackle', as her opponents would have it) was genuine

The most prominent example of this was the advert placed in the New York Times by Rudy Giuliani, in which he criticised Hillary Clinton's questioning of Gen Petraeus's testimony to Congress.

But her name also finds its way into the speeches of many of the other Republican candidates, whether in the context of her healthcare plan or her idea to give families $5,000 (2,450) for each new-born child.

Polarising candidate

In fact, she is mentioned almost as often as former President Ronald Reagan these days - but in rather less reverential tones.

The strategy behind the "Clintonisation" of the Republican race seems clear.

As they fight for the attention of their somewhat dispirited, primary voting base, what better name for the candidates to drop than that of the most polarising Democratic opponent?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
Clinton's raucous laughter risks coming back to haunt her

And by crowning Hillary Clinton often enough, they seem to be willing her over the finishing line; setting up a contest which they believe offers them the best chance of victory.

But wise heads in the party are warning of the danger of basing a strategy on your opponent's perceived negative qualities, rather than on your own positive ones - and of underestimating a candidate who not only has a highly effective campaign, but the enviable ability to deflect attacks.

One example: what could have been a huge fuss over Norman Hsu, the businessman who raised more than $250,000 (122,700) for the Clinton campaign and turned out to be a fugitive from justice, was rather buried in the Petraeus report coverage.

That sense of invincibility took something of a knock during the most recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire.

As she appeared more defensive than in the past on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, a handful of Senator Clinton's opponents - tentatively, politely - broached the issue of her electability.

It broke a taboo but - it has to be said - none of the blows that were landed carried much of a punch.

More worryingly perhaps was the post-debate discussion about whether the frequently-heard Clinton laugh (or "Clinton cackle", as her opponents would have it) was genuine.

Harsh spotlight

On one level, this could be dismissed as frivolous, but on another it does provide the sort of easily replayed moment that will find its way into negative adverts and taps into visceral concerns about her character.

But the Clinton campaign will be aware of the dangers of over-confidence.

After all, the same opinion polls which give their candidate a large and consistent lead over her rivals also suggest that a majority of Americans have yet to decide who they will vote for in the primaries.

Nonetheless most of her Democratic opponents, with the exception of Barack Obama, cannot help but envy her central, touchstone position in the political debate.

Their only hope of success is to turn that consistent media spotlight against her - something which, so far, they have failed to do.

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