WASHINGTON - Forget Bill. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential leader, has become the Republican candidates' favorite punching bag.
Mitt Romney argues she would turn the United States into a "big government, big taxation, welfare state." John McCain calls the New York senator an irresponsible guardian of taxpayer dollars. Rudy Giuliani claims she'd put the country "on defense against terrorism." And all three lambast her on Iraq.
At every turn, the leading GOP contenders are criticizing Clinton even as they are entangled in their own turbulent race for the Republican nomination.
"They see her not only as the clear Democratic front-runner but also as the most formidable potential opponent," said Joseph Marbach, a Seton Hall University political science professor. Thus, Marbach and others say, each is trying to prove he is the strongest Republican to challenge Clinton in November 2008 _ and damage her in the process.
The two-term New York senator leads the Democratic field but faces fierce challenges from Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and ex-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. GOP candidates have harped on them, too, but to a lesser extent.
It's standard campaign fare for Republicans to castigate Clinton's husband and his administration _ and they still do. They also have assailed her sporadically since 1992. Now, she is a White House candidate in her own right, and as such, is increasingly in the GOP candidates' crosshairs.
For good reason, analysts say.
"This gives them a way for their supporters to measure whether they're tough enough to take her on in a general election," said Ed Rollins, a Republican who was a White House political director under President Reagan. Plus, Clinton-bashing is a surefire way for Romney, McCain and Giuliani to energize the dispirited GOP base that votes in primaries, he said.
"She is hated by the core," Rollins said.
Polls show Clinton is incredibly popular with Democrats but extraordinarily unpopular with Republicans. Half the country views her favorably and half unfavorably.
Beating up on Clinton now also could pay dividends for Republicans come next fall by driving up her already high negatives, hampering her effort to win the primary and leaving her wounded for the general election _ or perhaps deprive her of the nomination altogether.
"They are trying to weaken her at the outset knowing she's the one to beat," said Donna Brazile, a Democrat who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000. She doubted Republicans would succeed, adding that Clinton has proven time and again "she can stand up to the right-wing slime machine."
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer dismissed the GOP onslaught, saying, "Republicans are clearly nervous because they know that Senator Clinton is the candidate with the strength and experience to win the general election and become president."
The White House got into the Clinton-criticizing act Thursday, making fun of the couple for assailing Bush's decision to erase the prison sentence of former aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Clinton himself commuted the sentences of 36 people and pardoned 140 people, many of them controversial, in the final hours of his presidency.
"I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," said Tony Snow, the presidential spokesman.
Jabs at Clinton from those looking to succeed Bush guarantee applause from the party faithful.
In Los Angeles, McCain criticized her for backing $150 million in projects he considered wasteful and unnecessary in wartime. Earlier, at a debate in Manchester, N.H., the Arizona senator needled her on Iraq, intoning: "When Senator Clinton says this is Mr. Bush's war, President Bush's war," she is wrong.
In Sioux City, Iowa, Romney claimed that Clinton would push the country off course economically, militarily and socially, and he cracked that her platform wouldn't get her elected in France. "Her view is the old, classic, European caricature that we describe of big government, big taxation, welfare state," said to former Massachusetts governor.
In a debate in Columbia, S.C., Giuliani argued that Clinton was an apostle of big government. "The leading Democratic candidate for president of the United States has said that the unfettered free market is the most disastrous thing in modern America," the former New York mayor said.
And, the trio piled on when Clinton voted against a war-funding bill. Giuliani said she had "gone from an anti-war position to an anti-military, anti-troops position." McCain accused her of embracing "the policy of surrender," while Romney claimed she "abandons principle in favor of political positioning."