by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & K & lt;/span & arl Rove, the brilliant campaigner who had no bloody clue how to govern, just couldn't resist. Even in resignation, he couldn't help dusting off his old dog-eared copy of The Art of War one last time.

On his way out the back door of the White House, fleeing an administration he left in tatters, Rove just had to start fighting the next battle, telling reporters that Sen. Hillary Clinton "is a prohibitive favorite" to win the Democratic nomination for president.

It might seem like a non sequitur -- a passing thought from a political pro heading off into the sunset. No way. Rove wants to pick the Democratic candidate for president by bestowing a powerful air of inevitability on Hillary Clinton. And in so doing, he would set the strategy for the next Republican campaign: All Hillary hating, all the time.

But Rove's little ploy didn't fool anyone, as political watchers easily saw politics in play -- Rove is trying to control the 2008 playing field, the punditry went, by picking the candidate he thinks would be easiest for a Republican to beat. But even in plain sight, it worked. Ever since Rove resigned, Hillary Clinton's poll numbers have been getting stronger.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & U & lt;/span & nlike all those D.C. pundits, I'm not so sure Rove really thinks Hillary Clinton would be the easiest candidate to defeat -- in fact, she would likely win New York State even if Rudy Giuliani becomes the GOP nominee. No, this is about more than just presidential politics; it's about what kind of year 2008 will be.

Rove is notorious for scorched-earth campaigns, and you can bet that if he has anything to do with it, and if Hillary Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee, we will see the mother of all nasty campaigns. In that case, a Republican campaign will not be about issues -- it will be 100 percent about not electing Hillary Clinton. And that will play all the way down the line, from Congressional races to dogcatcher. Where you stand on the Hillary question could be the most important question any candidate will have to answer in 2008.

Perhaps Democrats have the fighting spirit and the power to finally take on the Republicans and beat them at their own game. And perhaps there would be some joy in seeing President Hillary Clinton wielding the power to spy on, even arrest and hold without charge, somebody like, say, Karl Rove -- all thanks to unprecedented executive powers concocted for President George W. Bush.

As fun as that sounds, it's a war the Democrats shouldn't fight. If Karl Rove wants something this bad, it can't possibly be good for the country.

And this should concern Republicans, too, as this is also about the future of the GOP. The nation needs two parties to function best -- two safe and sane parties. If the GOP is ever to rebound from its eight-year detour from the conservative principles it once espoused, it needs to stop the divisive politicking, it needs to develop strategies to attack the nation's challenges and it needs to reconnect with Americans. What it doesn't need is Karl Rove and the crutch of Clinton hatred.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ater during his farewell lap of interviews, Rove added that Hillary Clinton has "the highest negatives of any candidate in the history of the Gallup poll." He's right; in a campaign in which few voters have formed an opinion yet, nearly half of the nation (48 percent) has an opinion on Hillary Clinton, and it's unfavorable.

Rove knows a Hillary Clinton candidacy is the only thing that could kill the momentum Democrats have going into the 2008 elections -- that's the real reason he wants her to prevail. With massive debt, a shaky economic future, the Constitution under siege and a quagmire of uncertainty in Iraq -- all enabled by Republican lawmakers who blindly followed Bush and Rove over the cliff -- the GOP could be in for its worst drubbing since 1964. Rove knows it's going to be bad, but it might not be a total disaster if he can cast Hillary Clinton as the villain.

It's taken years for Democrats to win back the trust of the heartland -- they've been on the defensive since the Republican Revolution of 1994, a reaction against President Bill Clinton. If Hillary is at the top of the bill, it's not hard to see a lot of rank-and-file Democratic candidates running for cover -- maybe not so much on the coasts, but definitely in places like Montana, Colorado and even Eastern Washington. Imagine Sen. Jon Tester of Montana trying to get elected (as he barely did in 2006) if he had to endorse Hillary Clinton for president.

Hillary Clinton is going to go over like a ton of bricks in the Mountain West and South, and Democratic Party officials know it. Even John Edwards and Barack Obama have started pointing out the big-picture problem Hillary Clinton creates.

Elizabeth Edwards put it just about perfectly when she told Time magazine this week that, "I do not think the hatred against Hillary Clinton is justified. I don't know where it comes from. I don't begin to understand it. But you can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it will energize the Republican base. Their nominee won't energize them, Bush won't, but Hillary as the nominee will."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, "Every battle is won before it is ever fought." This is clearly what Karl Rove is hoping for when he tries to promote Hillary Clinton as an inevitability. But Sun Tzu also counseled that, "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill," and hopefully Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states take that advice to heart.

So if those voters want to really annoy Karl Rove, it's easy: Nominate Edwards or Obama.

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