WASHINGTON - Is this how it's going to be for the next two-and-half years?
Republican strategist Karl Rove's decision to raise the issue of Hillary Clinton's health at a political conference signals a possible new line of attack on the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2016.
Rove's comments, reported beneath the scintillating The New York Post headline (http://pagesix.com/2014/05/12/karl-rove-hillary-clinton-may-have-brain-damage/), raised the specter of "brain damage" in the wake of Clinton's December 2012 fall at her Washington home that resulted in a concussion.
"Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she's wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury?" he told the audience. "We need to know what's up with that."
Nevermind that Clinton spent only three days in the hospital and has said she won't even decide on a White House run until later this year or early next, the Rove comments seem to signal a Republican effort to soften her up early.
It seems as though the time has come to "let the games begin."
Outraged Democrats jumped all over Rove's comments, the general tenor of which he later defended on Fox News.
"I didn't say she had brain damage," he told viewers. "She had a serious health episode. This will be an issue in the 2016 race whether she likes it or not."
Known as former President George W. Bush's lead political strategist in both presidential victories -- even Bush referred to Rove as "the architect" of his 2004 re-election -- some analysts believe Clinton is already polling so strong that various Republican operatives will try multiple lines of attack to see if they soften her up well before the 2016 primaries begin.
During a recent Washington appearance, former President Bill Clinton chuckled when asked about the episode.
"Now they say she has really got brain damage?" he said. "If she does then I must be in really tough shape because she is still quicker than I am."
Hillary Clinton made no mention of the issue when speaking to the Washington-based New America Foundation on Friday.
More to come
The attacks on Hillary Clinton are no surprise to veteran Democratic strategists Celinda Lake, a pollster for Bill Clinton and an enthusiastic backer of his wife.
She says those surrounding the likely 2016 candidate harbor no illusions about what to expect if she decides to make a White House bid.
"Just as people were unbounded in their commentary about Obama, they will be unbounded in their commentary on her and she's tough enough," said Lake. "She can take it. She's taken it for years."
Another issue you can expect to hear a lot more about is the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, died.
House Speaker John Boehner recently announced the formation of a special House committee to look into the Benghazi attacks and many Democrats expect Republicans will try to use it to raise questions about Clinton's tenure as secretary of state.
Republicans have long charged that the Obama administration was slow to acknowledge that the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack because it came in the midst of the president's 2012 re-election campaign, a charge the president rebuffed in one of his debates with Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
But the issue lived on, and Clinton, recovering from her fall, was still defending her handling of Benghazi during the famously heated 2013 Senate hearing that saw a line of tough questioning from Republicans.
"Was it because of a protest or was it because guys were out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans?" she told Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis. "What difference at this point does it make?"
No stranger to Republican attacks, Clinton, during her time as first lady, took a lot of heat for her husband's initial health-care reform proposal in 1993 and 1994.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, said Clinton will likely be well-prepared for a barrage of Republican salvos should she decide to run in 2016.
"There is a base of opposition to Hillary Clinton," she said. "It is part of the Republican conservative base and that is not inconsequential but I think she looks like a pretty strong candidate at this point."
Still the frontrunner
Public opinion polls show Clinton a strong favorite for the Democratic nomination in two years.
She continues to swamp Vice President Joe Biden and other less well-known potential contenders like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
In addition, recent surveys show her defeating any number of potential Republican candidates including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a favorite of mainstream Republican activists who are pushing him to get into the race.
Like Clinton, Bush says he will make a decision on a White House run some time after this November's congressional elections.
George Washington University political scientist John Sides said Clinton looks to be in a strong position.
"Really the race is hers if she wants it," he said. "I don't have any insight into her mindset about it right now. But she is quite strong and I think it would be difficult to imagine any other Democrat emerging as a serious challenger."
The Hillary-2016 speculation will ramp up in a big way in just a few weeks. "Hard Choices," her memoir on being secretary of state, will be published next month, which she'll be likely to discuss in TV interviews.
But try as she might to turn the conversation back to her time as secretary of state, it's certain she'll be asked over and over again if she has any future political plans.
Democrats and Republicans will be, as they say, "all ears."
Original headline: GOP Operatives Target Hillary's Mental Health, Benghazi
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