WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton faces one of the most maddening challenges that anyone in politics has ever confronted.

Many of the people who like and admire her, who believe she has good values and would make an excellent president, are not sure they are for her because they don’t think she can win.

Many of these same people, as one prominent Democrat told me, actually feel guilty that they harbor these doubts, partly because the specter that haunts Clinton has little to do with anything she has said or done herself.

In public, the doubts are dressed up as substantive concerns — she’s too cautious, she didn’t stand up against the war in Iraq, she mishandled that healthcare reform in the 1990s, she’s perceived as too liberal or she’s not progressive enough.

The doubters are ashamed to say what really worries them: that Americans don’t want to relive the supposed psychodramas of the Bill Clinton years; that her association with her husband will mobilize his enemies more than it will energize his friends; that their relationship is just too complex for those critical swing voters to understand or accept.

Who can blame Sen. Clinton’s supporters for being enraged by such a list? Would those who trumpet “family values” admire her more if she had just divorced the guy? Why should the sins of the husband be borne by the wife? Do her six effective and admired years in the Senate and her landslide reelection mean absolutely nothing? Has anyone even looked at her many serious policy speeches?

And if Bill is the real issue, doesn’t his stewardship look awfully good now when compared with that of the current White House occupant?

Yet no matter how unfair, misguided or even dimwitted Sen. Clinton’s supporters may find the catalog of doubts, she will have to deal with them if she is to win over all the guilt-ridden skeptics.

And that is why the prospect of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy is not only good for the Democratic Party but also good for Clinton herself. Without Obama in the race, the Democratic primaries would boil down to Hillary and those vying to be the anti-Hillary. She might well win a battle of attrition, but without quelling the doubts.

A Clinton-Obama contest would require Clinton to shed some of her caution. It would create enormous popular interest in the Democratic Party. And if she were to beat Obama — this assumes, as I expect, that Obama will look just as formidable a year from now as he does today — Clinton would prove her mettle, which might finally put the doubts to rest.

The most curious thing about the coming contest, if it happens, is that in certain respects the Obama candidacy of 2008 would bear an uncanny resemblance to Bill Clinton’s candidacy in 1992. Youth is part of it. Clinton was 46 on Election Day in 1992. Obama will be 47 on Nov. 4, 2008. So are their parallel promises to break with the past and create a new kind of politics.

In 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton railed against politicians who “have divided us against each other, pitting rich against poor, playing for the emotions of the middle class, white against black, women against men, creating a country in which we no longer recognize that we are all in this together.”

In his New Hampshire debut over the weekend, Obama said that we had “come to be consumed by” the “24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative-ad bickering, small-minded politics that doesn’t move us forward. … There’s no sense that they are coming together in a common-sense, practical, non-ideological way to solve the problems that we face.”

The most important passage in Obama’s New Hampshire speech was this one: “America is ready to turn the page. America is ready for a new set of challenges. This is our time. A new generation is prepared to lead.” In other words: Goodbye to both the Clinton era and the Bush years.

A discussion about who is best positioned to turn the page of history is precisely the one Hillary Clinton most needs to engage. Joining that dialogue will be essential for the other candidates, notably John Edwards and Evan Bayh, who cannot simply run as anti-Hillarys and will have to challenge the notion that this is a two-person battle.

However the contest turns out, the debate about the future that Obama is encouraging would be very good for Clinton because, most of all, she needs to put the past behind her. Paradoxically, it might also help Democrats recover the best, most forward-looking aspects of Bill Clinton’s legacy.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is [email protected].

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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