New York Senator Hillary Clinton has always looked like a good bet to win re-election in 2006–probably by a margin wide enough to jumpstart the 2008 presidential campaign that many Democrats want the former First Lady to make.

With the decision of Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro to seek the Republican nomination to challenge her, however, Clinton’s fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the better.

Pirro, a hyper-ambitious publicity hound who frequently turns up on the Fox News Channel as a “legal affairs” commentator, had been weighing races for governor, attorney general or Clinton’s Senate seat. With the fortunes of the state Republican Party in decline (even the conservative New York Post says that “New York’s GOP is withering–fast”), Pirro was unlikely to win any of those posts. So she opted for the showcase contest: a challenge to the woman Republicans around the country love to hate. Pirro’s announcement garnered homestate headlines, enthusiastic coverage on Fox and conservative talk radio and promises of hefty campaign contribution checks from Hillary-haters nationwide.

But, as the Post admitted, the Pirro campaign is “not one (Clinton’s) likely to lose sleep over.”

Here’s why:

Pirro supports abortion rights and reproductive freedom. She’s for civil unions and other gay rights measures. She favors affirmative action and opposes the strict immigration quotas favored by Congressional conservatives. She’s a big backer of gun control. And she’s been enthusiastic about precisely the sort of “big-government” solutions to child-welfare and community issues that Republicans condemn Clinton for promoting.

In other words, Pirro is more of a Rockefeller Republican than a Reaganite. Yet, in an era of sharper-than-ever partisan divisions, Pirro will attract few if any votes from moderate-to-liberal New Yorkers who have sent clear signals that they do not want to give aid and comfort to President Bush and Congressional Republicans. Don’t forget that Bush lost New York state by more than 1,350,000 votes in 2004. In the same year, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote and the GOP suffered a rare loss of a House seat in the Buffalo area while several of its House incumbents, such as upstater Tom Reynolds, saw their victory margins slashed.

It is comic to suggest that Clinton will lose many moderate-to-liberal votes to Pirro just because, in the words of the the King of the Hillary Haters, Dick Morris, “Hillary will have to end up running against someone who is quite like herself in her public positions.” New Yorkers are savvy enough to know that, if Pirro wins, she will vote to put right-wing Republican opponents of choice, gay rights and gun control in charge of the Senate, and that will disqualify Pirro with precisely the sort of voters she would need to mount a serious challenge to Clinton.

Morris suggests that Pirro might be able to draw support as a “tough-on-terror” candidate, playing the national security card against Clinton as have other Republicans in other states. But that is an even more comic claim. There is nothing progressive, nor even liberal about Hillary Clinton’s stance on national security issues–she wants to “stay the course” in Iraq, she’s backed even the most over-the-top spending allocations for the war, she’s been a supporter of the Patriot Act and other assaults on civil liberties and she’s frequently more in line with the Bush Administration’s approach on national security issues than a number of Senate Republicans.

When all is said and done, Clinton could end up benefitting from the “name” Republican challenge posed by Pirro, as it will reinforce the Democrat’s position with base voters who might otherwise have problems with her centrist stances.

Indeed, if there is a candidate who is going to have a problem with her base, it’s Pirro.

Several more conservative candidates are in the Republican race, including Ed Cox, a prominent New York lawyer who is the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer and attorney Bill Brenner. Pirro may beat the three of them for the GOP nod. But one member of that trio is likely to be the nominee of the Conservative Party, a New York state institution that refused to back Schumer’s moderate Republican challenger in 2004 and gained 220,960 votes for a little-known candidate running on its party line in the race. (In the presidential vote, the Conservatives backed Bush, who obtained 155,574 votes, more than 5 percent of his state total, on its line.)

If Pirro loses hundreds of thousands of votes to a Conservative Party nominee, she could well run a weaker race than Clinton’s 2000 foe, former US Representative Rick Lazio, who had the Republican and Conservative endorsements. (Lazio got 43 percent of the vote that year, while polls currently put Pirro at around 29 percent.)

That may not be the worst of it for Pirro. While there is no question that Hillary Clinton suffers among some voters because of her association with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Pirro has a husband problem of her own. As the Post‘s able politcal scribe, Fredric U. Dicker, gently notes, “Pirro’s strength as a candidate is handicapped by her husband Albert’s conviction in 2000 on federal income-tax fraud charges, an earlier revelation that he fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, as well as the recent allegation by a Mafia informant that Al Pirro leaked confidential material from an ongoing Westchester DA’s probe.”

Plenty of ink will be spilled over the next fifteen months on the Clinton-Pirro race, and talk-TV and radio will love the fight. But if there was any cheering heard after Pirro announced on Monday, it was coming from Clinton’s headquarters.