WASHINGTON --Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, hounded for months with questions about her presidential ambitions, gave a two-word answer today to voters: ``I'm in.''
In an Internet video statement, the New York Democrat and former First Lady said she would be forming an exploratory committee to determine whether she will become a formal candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008, the first step in launching a full-scale campaign.
``You know, after six years of George Bush, it is time to renew the promise of America. Our basic bargain that no matter who you are or where you live, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can build a good life for yourself and your family,'' Clinton said in a statement headlined ``I'm In.''
Seated on a living room couch and speaking as though she were addressing a small gathering instead of millions of voters, Clinton promised to begin a ``conversation'' with Americans to solicit views on how to end the war in Iraq and deal with issues, including energy independence, health care and the federal deficit.
The tactic mirrors the ``listening tour'' Clinton took of New York State ahead of her successful campaign for the US Senate seat in 2000. Clinton's nonstop travel to small towns around the state has been credited with winning over an initially skeptical upstate New York and delivering her the US Senate seat.
``So let's talk. Let's chat. Let's start a dialogue about your ideas and mine,'' Clinton said, gesticulating casually with her hands on a website that refers to the US senator by her first name. ``Because the conversation in Washington has been just a little one-sided lately, don't you think? And we can all see how well that works.''
The second-term senator joins a crowded pack of Democrats seeking the nomination, including several current and former colleagues. Her biggest threats, according to public opinion polls and political polls, are charismatic Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who has been leading an antipoverty center since his unsuccessful run for the vice presidency in 2004.
Antiwar Democrats have also complained that Clinton has never categorically renounced her 2002 vote for the use of force in Iraq, as other candidates have done. Clinton last week laid out a plan for phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
Clinton, 59, has major advantages in fund-raising ability, name recognition and the historic quality of her candidacy, one of the few mounted by a woman for the White House. But both Obama, a newcomer whose message of unity has electrified crowds in his early campaign, and Edwards, an antiwar candidate who has highlighted the plight of the working poor, are strong rivals, analysts say.
``She's the national front-runner, but she's not the runaway favorite anymore,'' said John Zogby, a pollster in upstate New York. ``She's running against Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy,'' he said, referring to Edwards and Obama.
Also running among Democrats are Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is scheduled to announce his intentions Sunday, while Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, is expected to announce his intentions soon.
Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, announced yesterday he will seek the GOP nomination. Brownback, one of the most prominent anti-abortion lawmakers in Congress, is competing against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the social conservative vote.
Clinton is scheduled to make a public appearance in New York today, and said she will participate in online video chats during the week, starting Monday.
Obama -- who also used a video web format to announce his exploratory committee last week -- said yesterday he welcomed Clinton into the race.
``Senator Clinton is a good friend and a colleague whom I greatly respect. I welcome her and all the candidates, not as competitors, but as allies in the work of getting our country back on track,'' Obama said in a statement.
Long anticipated by both supporters and critics, Clinton's announcement yesterday captured an immediate endorsement from EMILY's List, an influential group that raises funds for Democratic, pro-abortion rights women. It was the group's first-ever presidential endorsement.
``I think some people had worries and concerns anticipating the run, but now that it's begun, there's a tremendous sense of excitement,'' said Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's List. ``I think there's no question women will be tremendously excited about electing the first woman president.''
The New York senator brings an impressive resume to the race, and has a vast network of political supporters and donors. Her political career has blossomed since 1992, when she was derided by some for saying ``I suppose I could have stayed him and baked cookies and had teas,'' but instead pursued a career in law while her husband, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, was in the governor's mansion.
As First Lady, Clinton headed a health care task force which ultimately ended in a political debacle for both Clintons, with the plan rejected on Capitol Hill. Following a painful public examination of her marriage after Bill Clinton's affair with former intern Monica Lewinsky was revealed, Hillary Rodham Clinton rallied in 2000, convincing New York voters to send an Illinois native and former Arkansas First Lady to the US Senate.
In the Senate, Clinton has drawn respect from both parties for her knowledge and hard work. But she remains a divisive figure nationwide, a factor political consultants and pollsters say is her biggest early hurdle to capturing the Democratic nomination.
'`There are people who might be looking for a change, who might not be comfortable with a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton sequence'' in the White House,'' said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. A recent Marist poll showed that 47 percent of American voters would never vote for Clinton, and ``that doesn't leave a lot of room for error,'' Miringoff said.
Zogby -- whose polling last week showed Clinton trailing Obama in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, and behind Edwards in Iowa, the location of the first Democratic caucuses -- said Clinton looked ``feminine enough, commanding enough and smart enough'' in her video. But he and other Democrats said Clinton must now assure the party she is electable.
``She's got to prove to Democrats first that she is a winner,'' said Peter Fenn, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. ``She's got to convince the people who like her, like what she stands for, who like the idea of a Clinton presidency, but are reluctant to go on the bandwagon because they're not sure she can win.''
While other candidates, like Obama, are trying to become better-known nationally, Clinton must counter negative impressions held by voters who have never seen her in person or heard her speak on issues -- a challenge Clinton has acknowledged.
``You may think you know about me, but I may be the most famous person you know very little about,'' Clinton said during a National Public Radio interview last month. ``I'd like to make sure the record is clear and then people can make their own judgments.''