“So would you vote for Hillary?” my New Mexico friend asked the minute we sat down for dinner in his favorite restaurant. “I’m a Democrat and I’m not convinced the time is right. My wife says she won’t under any circumstance, but probably will change her mind. Besides we have Gov. Bill Richardson, who wants the job,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.

His question came in a discussion of liberal anger over the New York senator’s opposition to setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Her position was directly opposite that of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and is being regarded as the first rocket fired in the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The very fact that my friend used only the given name of the former first lady attests to the universal recognition Hillary Rodham Clinton brings to any campaign, a familiarity that while both an asset and a liability is certainly a factor with which to reckon.

My friend’s remarks also confirmed what recent travels around the West and Midwest have made clear: that nearly two and a half years away from a presidential election, the only name on everyone’s lips is hers. Outside of President Bush, and perhaps her own husband, she is the most visible politician in America and that includes her potential Republican opponent in the most popular of the 2008 scenarios, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Confessing that one lives inside the Washington Beltway results in instantaneous interrogation about Clinton’s future and engenders endless speculation about whether she is worthy of becoming the first woman to hold presidential office. The very fact that she stimulates such passionate debate puts her far ahead of any of her contemporaries who also may be harboring White House aspirations.

Not since John F. Kennedy burst on the scene after a spirited losing convention fight to be Adlai Stephenson’s 1956 running mate has a potential nominee’s every move been more closely monitored. Even teen-agers who will reach voting age in 2008 offer their assessment, especially young women who view her candidacy from the standpoint of what it does for their own dreams of breaking the tradition that has kept them out of the Oval Office and other executive suites.

Whether this universal recognition translates into returning her to the Pennsylvania Avenue address is quite another question. One of the two elephants in the room is the built-in negative she brings to any campaign _ those voters who will not cast their ballot for her under any circumstance. They seem to be divided into groups those that don’t want a woman in the job, period, and those, like my friend’s wife, who found her performance as first lady off putting.

The other problem is concern over what role her husband would play in her presidency. The two continue to have a strained relationship, surface appearances not withstanding. Is the nation ready for a First Husband who is himself a former president and who has cheated on his wife, now the chief executive? Bill Clinton, surveys show, probably could be elected to another term if the Constitution permitted, but can his charm and charisma carry over to a wife who is viewed as brilliant, but often chilly, and who some blame for her husband’s peccadilloes?

At this early juncture, the other prospective candidates look like a wasteland of has-beens like former nominees Al Gore and Kerry, lightweight wannabes and those who clearly will never be. Gore and Kerry aren’t likely to resound loudly among the party’s king makers disillusioned by their earlier performances. Former senator, presidential aspirant and vice presidential candidate John Edwards is still out there somewhere trying to gin up support for another try. A variety of senators and governors perhaps too numerous to mention are dancing around the idea in an effort to decide if they really have the fire and fortitude to conduct a campaign, especially against Clinton.

Denying Clinton the nomination, if she wants the job, won’t be easy for the Democrats even under the current primary system. One way or another, the nation’s voters are obsessively intrigued by her. The results of November’s midterm congressional elections will undoubtedly impact the run for the White House. If Hillary wins reelection in New York as handily as expected, she will be even a more formidable presence.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)