WASHINGTON -- Two dozen anti-war protesters camped outside the Los Angeles mansion of "Friends" producer Marta Kauffman on Oct. 8, hoping to catch Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as she entertained donors over soba noodles and chilled fish.
Clinton's fundraiser collected twice what was predicted, an estimated $150,000. But that little throng of polite, Code Pink protesters outside was an unsettling reminder of just how much the shadow of Iraq is creeping into Clinton's political career.
"Iraq is one of those issues -- like Vietnam or the civil rights movement -- where people will always ask, 'Where did you stand?' " said one veteran Democratic campaign consultant.
Clinton was one of 29 Senate Democrats to vote for the war resolution on Oct. 11, 2002; 21 voted no. Since then, however, she's used her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to criticize the administration on issues ranging from low military death benefits to inadequate Humvee armor. But she's never wavered in her basic support for the war.
That balancing act has its political advantages, particularly if she runs for president in 2008. Defying liberal peaceniks by backing the troops underscores the message that "she's no weakling on defense, that she's not a captive of the liberals," said one Democratic pollster.
But it could be a problem in early presidential primaries, which tend to attract progressives in disproportionate numbers. And it might backfire if the death toll keeps rising and the war's popularity keeps sinking among all groups, hawks and doves alike.
"Primary electorates tend to be more extreme electorates and a vote like Iraq, that was popular and centrist at the time, is going to be a lot less popular in the primary," said Baruch College public policy professor David Birdsell.
"The candidate who emerges to challenge Hillary in the primaries will almost certainly use the war as an issue to oppose her or to at least differentiate themselves from her," predicted a former adviser to several recent presidential candidates.
Dick Morris, the self-anointed king of the Hillary haters, thinks Iraq may be Clinton's biggest hurdle if she runs in 2008, telling Fox News, "her right foot is nailed to the floor in having to defend the Iraq war."
Clinton's political team doesn't think Iraq will seriously damage her chances if she chooses to run in 2008, largely because her anguish over the conflict is shared by a majority of Americans.
Still, they privately worry the war could pose problems, especially if her husband's former vice president, Al Gore, who opposed intervention from the start, jumps into the presidential race.
"When you take a principled stand, these are the risks you run," a Clinton insider said. "She is doing what she's thinks is right and letting the chips fall where they may."
She can take some comfort in the fact that possible presidential rivals Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and former Sen. John Edwards all voted yes, too.
Clinton's vote was rooted in her husband's frustrating attempts to disarm Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Her refusal to apologize for casting it has earned her praise from the likes of Newt Gingrich and conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, who calls her a "hard-liner at heart."
But that decision, and Clinton's July 2005 call for an 80,000-soldier increase in troop strength during the next four years, has enraged Democrats who question the war. Anti-war groups have responded by increasingly targeting her office and campaign events.
Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother who picketed George Bush's Texas ranch this summer, has taken on the senator with similar alacrity.
"I think she needs to say I don't have to act like a man to be a good leader," said Sheehan, who met with Clinton last month. "She needs to act like a woman and be against the war. I think it's really important for the Democrats to be an opposition party and she is the leader, in a way. She has a lot of power and she's been more of a hawk than most Republicans."
Carolyn Eisenberg, a Brooklyn-based peace activist and Hofstra University professor, said anti-war groups are preparing to stage actions at Clinton events in New York during her upcoming Senate re-election campaign.
"She'll have to run the gauntlet," Eisenberg predicted.
"I believe in freedom of speech, I have no problem with anybody expressing their feelings," said Clinton, after a recent Capitol Hill news conference.
"I've been asked many times, do I regret that vote," she told an audience in Palm Beach, Fla., in January. "I don't regret the vote based on what I knew at the time, but I regret the way the president used the authority. I also deeply regret our lack of planning, our refusal to use enough troops to stabilize and secure Iraq."
That logic has led two Senate Democrats to conclude that setting a withdrawal date is the way to go. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a possible 2008 contender who voted against the war resolution, has called for a Dec. 31, 2006, pullout of U.S. forces.
Earlier this month, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services committee, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), urged Bush to set a withdrawal date as a way to pressure Iraqi leaders into assuming a greater role in quashing the insurgency.
Clinton rejects that argument. She still holds out hope the passage of the Iraqi constitution will lead to greater stability, in part by welcoming previously excluded Baath Party officials back to their old jobs in ministries, according to aides.
She might reassess the situation in 60 days if conditions don't improve, they say.
That's not soon enough for Cindy Sheehan, who thinks Clinton is cynically adopting a wait-and-see approach as the Republicans sink deeper into a political hole over the war.
"Since Hillary and I met, at least 75 soldiers have been killed," she added. "I don't know her secret heart of hearts when it comes to Iraq. But I think she's playing politics."
Tough talk like that isn't likely to faze the thick-skinned Democratic frontrunner. Clinton respects Sheehan, aides say, but she's also heeding the words of returning soldiers, who tell her their equipment is lousy -- but don't often question their mission in Iraq.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.