THE UNDERCARD

09.25.14 9:45 AM ET

Does Team Hillary Want a Democratic Challenge?

Some primary challenges hurt a candidate. Others help. So which is Hillary Clinton looking at in 2016?

Dispense with the hoary notions that maybe she will decide for a quiet retirement as a Chappequa grandma, or the idea that there is any Democrat lurking in the shadows somewhere who could really derail Hillary Clinton’s march to the nomination. The former Secretary of State is all but certain to run for president—and nearly all but certain to become her party’s standard-bearer.

But with the Democratic presidential primary season fast approaching, Democrats inside and outside of Hillaryland are wondering precisely what kind of competition she will face as she heads toward the cornfields of Iowa. Will it be someone from the left—from the so-called “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party—testing out a message on reducing economic inequality and curbing the power of the big banks? Or will it be someone from the right, a Brian Schweitzer or Joe Manchin, promising a clean break from the Obama administration and more bipartisan comity in Congress?

For many Democrats, the hope is neither. As far as they are concerned, any primary opponent, from Joe Biden to Jim Webb, would ultimately suck up time and energy away from a Clinton candidacy. They remember what happened the last time Hillary appeared to have an easy shot at the White House, and her campaign was caught flat-footed by a young upstart from Illinois.

No one interviewed for this article thinks that particular lightning will strike twice—Clinton’s lead in polls this time is too great, top fundraisers are this time lining up behind her, and there is a sense among the party’s rank-and-file that 2016 is her time.

But that doesn’t mean that she won’t emerge wounded from the nomination process.

“Everybody thinks you benefit from a primary, but if it drains your resources, if it takes a long time, it pushes you away from where you want to be for a general election,” said Bob Shrum, who helped mastermind both Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s White House runs. “The great thing about not having a primary is that you still go out and run and spend money and you can really set the stage for a general election.”

In 2000, Shrum helped guide Gore, who as the sitting vice president had similar advantages to those Hillary has now, against a pesky challenge from the left from former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Gore won handily, but Bradley emerged as a media favorite. This time around, Clinton-backers are braced for a similar dynamic. At some point, even if Clinton’s only opponent is a relatively milquetoast figure like Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, he or she will have a moment. A bored and hungry media all but guarantees it. There will be a favorable poll, followed by a national magazine cover for the challenger, and breathless TV coverage wondering if Clinton’s poll numbers were inflated or if she was making the same mistakes she made last time.

Back in 2008, the long, drawn-out primary redounded to Democrats’ benefits. The Hillary/Obama race seemed almost general election-like in the way that it captivated the attention of the nation. The contest helped get millions of Americans to register to vote and tune into politics as the two barnstormed through places where Democrats had scarcely bothered to campaign before.

But a contest of similar length this time around is unlikely to have a similar effect. Then, Democratic strategists say, the grassroots were hungry for a real debate after eight years of George Bush. This time, the best possible opponent for Hillary is one that she dispatches with Bradleyesque ease and allows her to focus on the general election. This, Democratic strategists say, could even be better than no primary at all, since it will allow Hillary, who hasn’t been on the campaign trail in eight years, to shake off the rust.

“You don’t want Kennedy/Carter,” said Joe Trippi, who helped guide Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run, referring to the 1980 primary between President Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, which hurt Carter in his general election against Ronald Reagan. “In her case, what you really don’t want is something that reveals the division. You don’t want a vicious, knock-down drag-out fight between two wings of the party that hate each other.”

Of the possible Democrats eyeing the field, the one that seems to have the Clintionistas most worried is Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator fits into the same age and gender demographic as Clinton, and economic populism cuts at the party’s primary fault line. A fist-raising Warren candidacy could force Clinton into left-wing positions she could come to regret in a general election, similar to how Mitt Romney’s move to the right during the 2012 Republican primaries hurt him once he was running against Obama.

“The people who participate in primaries tend to represent the fringe of the fringe,” said Phil Singer, who served as the Clinton campaign spokesman in 2008. “This is true of either party, and as a result it forces candidates to go where the voters are, to pull leftward or rightward. For somebody who is a likely favorite to make it to the general, that type of dynamic doesn’t help.”

Some Democratic strategists, however, say that a Clinton/Warren faceoff could actually work to Hillary’s benefit. The notion of two women vying for the nomination would be almost as historic as the Obama/Clinton primary of 2008, and would be particularly helpful as the party doubles down on its attempts to brand the GOP as anti-woman. And if Hillary were to defeat Warren with even relative ease, the questions about how big the so-called Warren wing of the party truly are would be at last answered. It would be hard, in other words, for progressives to convincingly make the case that they were on the march if one of their own failed to win a single primary.

For this reason, some operatives close to the Clintons are privately hoping that it is Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s far-left senator, who jumps in. A Clinton/Sanders field would quickly come under Republican ridicule on the age question alone—the two would be a combined 140 years old—especially against a GOP field largely made up of forty- or fiftysomethings. But Clintonistas do not largely see the self-described Democratic Socialist as a credible threat.

Then, finally, there is the possibility that the challenge from Clinton comes not from the left, but from the right. On Tuesday, Jim Webb, a former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan who later served as a Democratic senator from Virginia, said that he was “seriously looking” at making a bid. It is hard to know if Webb is serious, but regardless, it is less of a possibility that Clinton faces this kind of challenge, since there are simply fewer possible candidates out there to her right. And should one emerge, it could, for Hillary supporters, be the best of all possible outcomes: a candidate who actually endears her to the liberal base, while giving her a chance to practice politics.

“I would advise any candidate to assess their viability and not just do a token run,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “It’s going to be a battle royale on the other side, and we can offer a united, positive vision for the country while they have to fight it out.”