Rudy runs against Hillary

Rudy Giuliani has decided the way to run against Fred Thompson is to run against Hillary Clinton.

His chances against him are hopeful. His chances against her ... well, you start to wonder.

The only thing going for Giuliani is that, while it's but a matter of weeks before he takes on Thompson at the polls, there are political light years ahead before he and Hillary would actually face voter choices.

If Clinton has done anything wrong lately -- in the course of opening up a 41-17 lead on Barack Obama in New Hampshire, for example -- it's not evident. Her new health care plan is smart, maybe even workable, if necessarily expensive.

Mandating that people buy health insurance, extending tax credits to small businesses to provide it, steering people to purchasing pools, limiting individual costs to percentages of income and subsidizing that by limiting the tax deductibility of rich people's employer-provided health insurance and letting the Bush income tax cuts lapse for the very wealthiest -- there's a lot of pragmatism and a touch of populism in that popular clarion call for the universal health care that the nation is just about ready for.

Cleverly, she placed calls in support of her plan to a few of the saner non-liberal pundits. Among them was David Brooks of The New York Times, who wrote of her warmth and proclaimed her plan better than anything any of the Republican candidates had advanced. Who knew he was so easy?

Anyway, back to Rudy, the man perhaps now likeliest to be Clinton's general election opponent, providing on a national stage the intriguing New York Senate race they nearly fought in 2000.

This was an unthinkable proposition months ago, owing to Giuliani's social and cultural liberalism. But now John McCain has fallen and Mitt Romney seems too slick by three-quarters. So, to stop Rudy, some conservative Republicans have ordered up a bored-looking candidate from central casting, Thompson, who has said nothing of substance or note in 10 days as a candidate and whom Giuliani has barely acknowledged.

Here's what Rudy has done instead: His campaign was the first to assemble reporters to decry Hillary's new health care ideas as Michael Moore's "Sicko" run amok, a sad reprise of her debacle in 1993, one that would put government more into health care and put health care more into the taxpayers' pockets. (Romney said much the same thing, but Clinton's plan is too similar to what he proposed as governor of Massachusetts for anyone to take him very seriously.)

And Rudy put an advertisement in The New York Times blasting Hillary for questioning Gen. David Petraeus' honor and integrity.

It's all nonsense, of course. Hillary's health plan uses government as a policy-setter and backstop. And she merely remarked that buying the general's semi-rosy scenario for our invasion of Iraq required a willing suspension of disbelief. She was questioning his reasoning and seriousness, not his honor or integrity.

But that was no matter to Rudy's greater purpose, which was to take Republican voters' minds off his liberal past and the emergence of a telegenic Southern conservative alternative. He wants Republican voters to think all Hillary all the time, about how they so fear her and her health care past and the very idea of her as commander in chief, and about how stopping her with their strongest designee is more important than anything else, and about how he is clearly that nominee.

It may work. Romney's blatant contradictions don't wear well. McCain hopes only that he can rise again through a broad rejection of all alternatives. Thompson seems to be going through motions. Mike Huckabee is running for running mate or a slot after Colbert.

Hillary marches on meanwhile, lapping Obama, laying out policies, warming up Republican columnists.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@