Hillary Clinton

NEW YORK — Sen. Hillary Clinton announced Saturday that she will seek to become the first female U.S. president, declaring "I'm in. And I'm in to win."

Clinton, 59, D-N.Y. and the wife of former President Bill Clinton, announced the start of an exploratory presidential committee on her Web site. She already leads in polls for the Democratic nomination, topping rivals such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

While Clinton has the best shot yet for a woman to win the White House, she also faces opposition across the country. Her unfavorable ratings hover in the 40 percent range, well above Edwards or Obama. She also has to overcome her 2002 vote to support the unpopular war in Iraq and what she calls "the scars" from her failed health-care plan in the 1990s.

"She enters as the front-runner for the nomination, but the biggest doubts always surround her electability," said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. "Clinton commands strong loyalty from her core supporters, but she also attracts intense opposition."

Evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell in September told a group of activists and pastors that Clinton would energize his constituents to get out and vote against the Democrats more than anyone else. "If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't" energize as much opposition, Falwell said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Republican donor and Texas businessman Dick Collins last year set up a Web site called "Stop Her Now" with a banner that says it's "rescuing America from the radical ideas of Hillary Clinton." The site features cartoons of Clinton, news on her activities and a joke of the week about her.

"There's a cottage industry that has spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to define Hillary Clinton," said Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton adviser and former head of the Democratic National Committee, in an interview before the announcement. "Republicans are scared of her — rightfully so."

As a result of her intense support and opposition during eight years in the White House and six in the Senate, Clinton's name recognition is "nearly 100 percent," said Rogan Kersh, a public service professor at New York University. She may also gain some support simply by being the first female frontrunner.

Emily's List, a political committee devoted to electing pro- choice Democratic women, lost no time in endorsing Clinton. The Washington-based group's president, Ellen Malcolm, said in a statement that Emily's List will tap into its more than 100,000 members to raise money and build support.

"I am one of the millions of women who have waited all their lives to see the first woman sworn in as president," Malcolm said. "Now we have our best opportunity."

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Jan. 16-19, Clinton led her nearest competitor Obama by 41 percent to 17 percent. The poll of 1,000 adults has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. And while Clinton had trailed potential Republican rivals such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in previous polls, a new Newsweek survey shows tight matchups.

Clinton would top McCain by 48 percent to 47 percent in a hypothetical contest, the Jan. 17-18 poll found. The numbers are flipped against Giuliani, with the ex-mayor taking 48 percent. With approval of President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war at an all-time low, 49 percent of 896 registered voters surveyed said they want to see a Democrat take the White House, compared with 28 percent for a Republican, Newsweek said.

Clinton has already shown that she can compete in the fund- raising race. She brought in more than $50 million for last year's successful Senate re-election campaign even as she lacked any serious competition. By contrast, Edwards, 53, raised just under $34 million for his failed presidential run in 2004.

Clinton said she plans to spend the next days talking to Americans, starting with evening online chats from Jan. 22-24. In a video on her Web site, she talked about how she's focused on family issues such as education and children's health. And while she's won points from Republican senators for her efforts to work with them, she also made clear she's ready to fight.

"I can say I know how Washington Republicans think, how they operate and how to beat them," she said.

One of the biggest obstacles for Clinton may be her vote to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq. While Clinton said in 2005 that Congress "never would have agreed" after what was learned about the "faulty evidence" used to justify the war, Edwards has said he regrets his vote and Obama, 45, wasn't yet in the Senate. Obama has been against the war from the start.

Clinton singled out Iraq as a major issue facing the nation in her video, saying she wanted to work with Americans to find the "right end" to the conflict. She also signaled that she won't be afraid to take on the issue that defined her as first lady. After listing topics that she wants to talk about with Americans, she added, "and let's definitely talk about how every American can have quality, affordable health care."

Charged by her husband Bill with overhauling the nation's health-care system, Clinton in 1993 initially drew high marks for her universal coverage plan. Yet the proposal was attacked by trade groups and Republicans as too complex and intrusive; it died within a year and painted Hillary Clinton as a big- government liberal, a label that she's had to live with even as her Senate record places her in the center of Democrats.

"I have the scars from that debate," Clinton said in a December interview. "We still have a problem. It is the single issue that CEOs talk to me about on a continuing basis."

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Born in Chicago in 1947, Hillary Rodham attended public school in the city suburb of Park Ridge and then went on to Wellesley College, where she served for a time as president of the local chapter of the College Republicans. Her politics had shifted by the time she graduated in 1969, when she gave a commencement address that earned her a story in Life magazine.

Clinton went on to Yale Law School, where she met Bill Clinton, and then in 1974 worked for the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry staff when it investigated President Richard Nixon. She worked as an attorney while serving as first lady of Arkansas, when her husband was governor.

"She's just an unusual case, being female, being the wife of a former president," said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "She's also labeled as being a polarizing figure, which she is. The current president is a polarizing figure. Any candidate who's not polarizing today just probably isn't well known enough."

Contributing: Greg Stohr in Washington