If you ask anyone around Hillary Clinton the question that everyone is asking, the answer comes back in a shot: The freshman Senator from New York is far too busy concentrating on her re-election in November to be giving even a passing thought to 2008. Thank you very much.
But politics is ultimately a game of logistics, and the junior Senator is putting the machinery in place for a campaign that looks far grander than a re-election cakewalk in New York. All it will need is for someone to throw the switch.
Against virtually nonexistent opposition for her Senate seat, she is raising money as though she were in the fight of her life, bringing in more than $33 million. What's left over -- which might easily be $10 million or more -- could be the seed money for a presidential campaign.
And as her husband did the year before launching his 1992 bid for the presidency, she has been putting together the intellectual pieces of a campaign agenda in a series of centrist, high-fiber speeches around energy policy, the economy, privacy and even rural issues.
Her political operation has grown to an army of 32 full-time employees, plus 10 from her Senate office who draw part of their salary there, and 13 consultants who are building, among other things, a national direct-mail operation. She recently added an Internet guru to their ranks.
And offering his services for free is the best Democratic political strategist on the planet: Bill Clinton is "thinking about [her presidential prospects] all the time," says one of Hillary's advisers. "He's thinking about it and talking to a lot of people, promoting Hillary. This is something he is very focused on."
Should Hillary run? Could Hillary win? Is this a dynasty in the making? Is a Clinton candidacy good for the republic? Normally, those would be questions that only political consultants would be asking at this stage, but given the outsize status of both Clintons, ordinary voters are already wondering the same thing.
Hillary would step into the race as the instant front runner, but the risks would be enormous. It is hard to imagine a greater vindication than seeing the second President ever impeached hold the Bible as his wife takes the oath of office.
But if Hillary ran and lost, both Clintons would come out tarnished -- no small consideration when a promising Senate career and a presidential legacy are in the balance.
So sensitive is the question of Hillary's future that both Clintons refused to let Time interview them about it, and they discouraged those around them from talking, which explains why nearly all the people who did talk did so on the condition that their name not be used.
2008 is closer than it looks
What they say is that 2008 is closer than it looks on your calendar. Whereas her husband could wait until just four months before the first caucus to make his announcement, a front-loaded presidential primary-and-caucus schedule and a growing field of contenders don't give Hillary that luxury.
Her strategists tell Time they are urging her to make her intentions clear by next spring -- by forming an exploratory committee, for instance -- to lock up fund-raising and political talent. Those close enough to know say that she is genuinely undecided but that Bill is not disguising his eagerness to see her make a bid for his old job.
"He thinks that she should run, and he's going to do everything possible to help her," says Texas insurance mogul and philanthropist Bernard Rapoport, a longtime Clinton friend and backer.
The prospect of a Hillary-for-President campaign has put much of the Democratic establishment in a bind. The early line is that Hillary would be unstoppable in a Democratic primary but unelectable in a general election.
That bet would help explain the curious political subspecies I came across frequently in reporting this story: moneymen who are lining her campaign account even as they say privately they hope she won't run.
Her strategists point out that all she would have to do in November 2008 is win every state John Kerry did, plus one. They consider Ohio and Florida her best opportunities.
And there is plenty of encouraging news for her in the latest Time poll. More than half of those surveyed -- 53% -- said they had a favorable impression of her; she registered higher than the other most familiar names in the potential Democratic field, Al Gore (49%), John Edwards (46%) and John Kerry (45%).
Clinton does best against McCain
Her negative ratings (44%) were lower than either Kerry's or Gore's. In hypothetical matchups with the preseason GOP favorite, John McCain, Hillary is the only big-name Democrat to make a real race of it, with McCain edging her by just 2 points among registered voters. By comparison, McCain would trounce Kerry by 10 points and Gore by 9.
But what those overall figures do not show is how differently Hillary is viewed in red and blue America and how familiar she already is to voters.
Other candidates may have a chance to persuade voters of their merits, but people have pretty much made up their mind about Hillary. Only 3% of those surveyed in the Time poll said they had no opinion of her, positive or negative. She is the inkblot test of a polarized electorate.
In the Time poll, Democrats overwhelmingly describe her as a strong leader (77%) who has strong moral values (69%). Republicans by and large see an opportunist who would say or do anything to further her political ambitions (68%) and puts her political interests ahead of her beliefs (60%).