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Why Hillary Clinton keeps dodging Keystone XL questions

Clinton is stuck between a rock and a hard place on the pipeline, but there's a political calculus to her quietness.

Hillary Clinton found herself in a familiar place Tuesday, having to dodge a question on a controversial Obama administration policy that bares her fingerprints. 

As secretary of state, Clinton oversaw the beginning of the approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline and moved the ball forward on negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership. But both have now become litmus tests for key segments of the liberal base -- putting her in an awkward position. 

But as important as it is for Clinton to win over the restive left wing of her party, it’s more important for her to bolster Obama so the country will be willing to hand the Democratic party a third term in the White House. As a result, she has opted to follow the president’s lead and not get ahead of the White House, even as her opponents pile on.  

RELATED: Clinton dodges question on Keystone XL

Clinton has been dodging questions on the controversial pipeline for years, both in the U.S. and especially Canada, where it would originate. She has found novel ways of saying “no comment” each time. Interest in the pipeline ebbs and flows, and for months, her silence has not ruffled any feathers.

But the issue came roaring back to life Tuesday as Clinton rolled out her climate plan in New Hampshire, when a man asked her to “please” answer “yes or no” whether she supports it. Clinton once again recused herself, saying it would be inappropriate for her, as a former secretary of state, to comment while her predecessor is still considering it. 

“If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question,” Clinton replied. “This is President Obama’s decision and I’m not going to second-guess him.”

The response from her rivals on both sides of the aisle was swift and pointed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s top challenger who generally refrains from criticizing her directly, responded by saying that he has led the fight against Keystone in the Senate. 

“It is hard for me to understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline,” he said.

Martin O’Malley’s campaign, which is tied for a distant third place in polls, rolled out an aggressive climate plan earlier this month and said “we can't move to a clean energy future” with Keystone in the picture.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who almost single-handedly made the Keystone pipeline an issue, also knocked Clinton.

Fortunately for Clinton, she likely won’t have to keep dodging the pipeline forever. Environmental groups are confident Obama will kill the pipeline before the end of his second term, as his public comments on the issue have grown increasingly negative. And he has vetoed congressional attempts to force his hand. 

Few constituencies that Clinton cares about back the pipeline, though a small number of unions have supported it, so she has little to gain for condoning it and much to lose. Even so, Clinton doesn't want to get ahead of the president and then force him to respond to her, the way Vice President Joe Biden did with gay marriage before Obama was ready. 

If Obama does kill the pipeline, Clinton can quickly applaud his decision and move on. Until he does, however, she'll likely continue coming up with new ways to avoid the question.

"I understand there could be political advantages to weighing in on Keystone," said Clinton campaign Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri in a Tuesday statement. "But given her former role as Sec state and having been part of the Keystone process, she believes that weighing in now could be disruptive to the process and not responsible to do. She is just in a different situation than other candidates."

It’s a similar line to the one Clinton has used on the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Clinton connected to Keystone on Tuesday. Speaking with reporters, Clinton said has a unique situation having served as secretary of state while both issues were considered. 

“If you look at both the trade agreement and the Keystone decision, I will certainly express my opinion when there is something to express an opinion about,” she said. “Right now, anybody who is talking about this really has to be shooting in the dark.”

RELATED: Senate approves 'fast track' trade authority in win for Obama

But the political calculus on TPP, which Obama strongly supports, is very different. She can expect to face lot of tough questions on the trade pact later this week when she appears before the AFL-CIO’s executive committee.

Unlike Keystone, Obama strongly supports TPP, and Clinton has taken a wait-and-see approach. The details of the treaty are secret, and the former secretary of state had said she will wait to weigh in until she can review them.

But when that day comes, Obama will be pushing the TPP hard while labor leaders will be fighting it tooth and nail, and Clinton will have to pick a side.