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david shribman

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at Rancho High School on May 5, 2015, in Las Vegas.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Fifty-five years ago, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts stood before the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and accepted his party's nomination for the White House. That speech is remembered for Mr. Kennedy's invitation to Americans to meet the challenges of the 1960s and for his invocation of a New Frontier of "new invention, innovation, imagination, decision."

But buried within that speech, now played on a continuous reel in the Kennedy Library in Boston, is a widely forgotten segment of two sentences that are oddly resonant of contemporary American politics and of the challenge facing the woman who may be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and thus the legatee of John Kennedy.

"I am proud of the contrast with our Republican competitors," Mr. Kennedy said before 80,000 people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. "For their ranks are apparently so thin that not one challenger has come forth with both the competence and the courage to make theirs an open convention."

Mr. Kennedy, who faced a difficult road to his nomination in Los Angeles, was speaking of Vice-President Richard Nixon's nearly effortless trot – no realistic opponent in his way after Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York concluded he could not win and thus should not run – to the Republican National Convention and its presidential nomination that year. But adjust those two sentences a bit and both the opportunity and peril faced by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton come into full, sharp focus.

Ms. Clinton has only token opposition in her drive to her party's nomination: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, burdened by age (73) and ideology (socialism) in a nation that worships youth and abhors socialism; maybe former governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, whose prospects were considered weak even before he received collateral damage from the riots in his home city of Baltimore; and perhaps former senator James Webb of Virginia, a one-time novelist and Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy who sometimes seems out of place in today's Democratic Party.

Given the relative lack of competition in the Democratic Party – a marked contrast with the Republicans, who have perhaps 20 presidential candidates – the debate has turned to whether Ms. Clinton is advantaged or disadvantaged by what may be an easy path to her party's nomination.

The advantages: She may emerge from the caucus and primary season without blood shed and bruises suffered. She may be able to concentrate on the general-election campaign against an as-yet unidentified Republican candidate. She can save her money for the fall election season. She can refine her positions in preparation for the autumn televised debates.

The disadvantages: Unlike her Republican opponent, she will not have been tested. She will not face difficult choices or difficult questions. She will not be forced to experiment on the stump or in debates. She will not be in fighting trim once the real competition gets under way.

No reasonable political professional is arguing that Ms. Clinton should regret her position as the nearly unassailable competitor for the Democratic nomination. Still, the disadvantages must be considered – and addressed.

And of course all of this is without mentioning that Ms. Clinton has a shadow opponent, another woman with a liberal profile – and one who seems to engender more passion among her followers than does Ms. Clinton.

That woman is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the most prominent voice on the American left in the debate about income inequality and, in the past week, the most prominent (among many) Democratic opponents of President Barack Obama's effort to win authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Pact on a fast track.

The TPP, as it is known, involves Canada, the United States and 10 other nations and is described, at least by Obama administration officials, as a counter to the economic threat posed by China and its trade policies. It also regarded by the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which hardly ever has a positive thing to say about Mr. Obama, as "a test of whether the centre of both parties can hold against protectionists on the right and left."

Mr. Obama singled out Ms. Warren earlier this month, disparaging her for behaving like a politician – a characterization to be avoided at all costs in contemporary American life – and for having a view of the trade pact that was, in words the President came to regret, "absolutely wrong." The problem for Ms. Clinton is that Ms. Warren has taken a distinct position on the TPP (she's against it, ardently) while Ms. Clinton, whom the Obama administration counted as a supporter, has not. Ms. Warren is acting as a gravitational pull for Ms. Clinton, moving her to the left on issues involving income disparity.

This troubles some Democratic regulars, who would prefer their 2016 nominee lean to the centre rather than to the left, and it delights the Warren partisans, who are angling to get their hero into a presidential race she has repeatedly disavowed.

The day after Mr. Obama lost an embarrassing test vote on the trade pact, Erica Sagrans, the "campaign manager" for a campaign that doesn't exist, issued a statement castigating Ms. Clinton for her apparent indecision and arguing, "Presidents can't duck hard problems – they have to tackle them head on. That's what Elizabeth Warren is doing with TPP right now."

This sort of thing may render moot, or completely reshape, the notion that Ms. Clinton is running alone for the presidency. Her drive for the White House is being shaped, at least in part, by a presidential candidacy that hasn't been declared and very likely won't ever be. She may be the first candidate to run against a phantom opponent. Who says there isn't anything new under the sun?