by Jules Witcover

In the cease-fire struck between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got second billing to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's role as the prime go-between, and rightly so. But her highly visible hand-holding on both sides did nothing to quiet chatter about her political strength at home as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

Her visits to Tel Aviv for a talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to Ramallah to confer with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas underscored President Obama's confidence in her in sending her from Burma, where she had been accompanying him, directly to the Middle East to try to put out the fire.

As Mrs. Clinton nears her promised resignation from State at the end of the first Obama term, and absent any Sherman-like statement that she will not run for president again, she'll be leaving the administration at a peak of her popularity and general respect at home.

She has handled her arc of departure with skill and grace, sticking to her heavy diplomatic workload and global travel schedule without domestic political distraction through the 2012 presidential campaign. During that campaign, she correctly brushed off the uninformed chatter that Obama might somehow get Vice President Joe Biden to switch jobs with her.

For both personal and political reasons, Mrs. Clinton will be well served as she contemplates her return to private life to step out of the political arena for the immediate future. Whatever role she decides to play between now and 2016, it is likely to reinforce a commitment to public service in some manner, keeping her visible without the intensity accorded an open pursuer of the presidency.

At the same time, no other Democrat has emerged as a serious challenger to the former first lady if she should choose to run in the next presidential cycle. One prospective hopeful, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, recently announced he would not seek a second term as governor of his state, preferring to stay in the Senate, perhaps a hint of his plans to bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Others mentioned include Govs. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York, but neither has the public profile or party support that Hillary Clinton will carry into the next chapter of her life. Her very strong campaign against Obama in 2008 left her with an army of women backers seeing her as the best prospect for becoming the first female American president.

Concerns that the American electorate might oppose the creation of a Clinton dynasty, with her husband former President Bill Clinton playing a dominant role behind the scenes, would clash with her own personal and well-demonstrated independence in the soap opera of what the Clinton marriage has sometimes seemed to be.

The former president himself has undergone somewhat of a public resurrection after an at times somewhat abrasive role in backing his wife's 2008 presidential bid. His enthusiastic and effective campaigning for Obama's reelection, in which the president described him as his chief "explainer of stuff," confirmed that Bill Clinton remains peerless as a Democratic advocate. His appearance with Obama at the Democratic convention in Charlotte was its highlight.

In any event, for all of Hillary Clinton's earlier insistence that her one exhausting campaign for the presidency would be her last, the pressure from women voters for her to run again is likely to be immense if she is able to navigate the next three years on an even course, especially in the absence of some yet-to-emerge Democratic star rivaling her.

The arguments that the country is not "ready" for a female president or that no woman has the qualifications for the job seem quaint today; other women leaders around the globe play distinctive roles in leading their countries at home and in international diplomacy.

Hillary Clinton took considerable strides in 2008 in challenging the first contention, and her impressive role as secretary of state since then has effectively combated the second one. If in the end she decides to reach for the Oval Office again in 2016, she will be a formidable candidate.


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