Clinton Hits Rough Patch
By: Wall Street Journal
As Iowa Showdown Nears Rivals Strike From Left As She Courts Center
By JACKIE CALMES
BALLSTON, Va. — As Hillary Clinton huddled with advisers not long ago, she was pressed to stake a position popular with the party’s left-leaning voters on one issue. But the presidential front-runner resisted. It wasn’t her position.
“If I do what you all want me to do, I’ll look great for the next couple months,” she said, according to one insider’s account. “But what if I’m the nominee? I’ll be ripped apart by the Republicans. And what if I’m the president? My hands will be tied.”
The New York senator’s response captured the tension at the core of her 10-month-old presidential bid, and helps illuminate why she has hit a dangerously bumpy stretch as January’s first nominating votes near. Sen. Clinton actually is running two campaigns at once — courting left-leaning Democrats to get the nomination, but mindful even now of maintaining a sufficiently centrist course to withstand Republican attacks and win election next November.
Beyond that, Sen. Clinton views her campaign as a template for her possible presidency. Having witnessed Bill Clinton’s early struggles reconciling campaign promises with governing — and guided by his private advice now — she knows first hand that what candidates say now for political points can haunt them as president. Close advisers call this caution her “responsibility gene.”
The result: As the front-runner, Sen. Clinton has drawn attacks from Democratic rivals at a crucial moment on topics ranging from Iran to taxes, even while holding positions that could serve her well in a general-election campaign, or as president. She will be tested further with four more Democratic debates in December, before the ultimate test — in the opening nominating contest Jan. 3 in Iowa.
In two recent polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers, Sen. Clinton was slightly ahead in one, but her chief rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, had retaken the edge in the other. A decisive Clinton victory in Iowa potentially could clinch the nomination; a loss, or even a close call, makes her vulnerable in the states that follow.
No first-time candidate before has juggled these conflicting considerations in quite this way, because none has ever run from Sen. Clinton’s unique position. She is far ahead in national polls for the nomination, her party is favored in polls to win the 2008 presidential election, and she has personal experience moving from campaign trail to White House. Typically, presidential candidates go a step at a time, focusing like lasers on the nomination, pivoting to the center only when it’s in hand, and worrying about promises made once inside the West Wing.
Sen. Clinton’s aides said she was unavailable for an interview. But interviews with numerous advisers, associates and even Republicans attested to her success this year in methodically building her lead over rival Democrats with tireless stumping and discipline. She gained ground by taking rough edges off her imperious image, and promoting her experience and competence, in the process persuading many doubting Democrats that she is “electable.”
Now, her party foes are nervous and even desperate as the days dwindle to the first, potentially make-or-break vote in Iowa, the only state where polls show a tight race. They are all firing at her, aiming where she is most vulnerable — her reputation as too cautious and calculating. Stoking the conflict are Republicans, who report their first uptick in donations to party headquarters in many months, thanks to a recent stream of “stop-Hillary” fund-raising emails. And Sen. Clinton, by her own hedging on several issues, has provided ammunition.
The jeopardy for her is that one Democrat could emerge from the pack to be the “un-Hillary,” consolidating support from voters to try to deny her the nomination. Her challenge is to prevent that, but without undoing what real progress she has made, according to polls, in appealing to a broader swath of the electorate.
It’s proving a struggle. That was evident in recent weeks that included the two most-contentious debates in the long series that she and a half-dozen other Democrats have had this year. In both, she was thrown on the defensive; by the second, she had come prepared to give as good as she got.
But substantively as well as stylistically, she faces risks in the coming weeks. While any candidate seeking to be commander-in-chief, and certainly a woman, must show she can fight her own battles, too shrill an attack could erode Sen. Clinton’s hard-won gains at softening her image.
Some of the skills needed to pull this off haven’t come naturally to Sen. Clinton. Despite her long exposure to the national limelight, she came late in life to a political career of her own, and has worked to develop her own voice. For example, she has never found it easy to give simple answers to questions. As First Lady, she once listened as White House press secretary Joe Lockhart briefly distilled for President Clinton what he, the aide, would tell reporters about some complex foreign-policy news.
She took him aside afterward, he says. “How do you do that?” she asked. “I need to learn how to do that. I was trained as a lawyer — I’ve always made an argument in paragraphs. I need to learn to speak in sound bites.” That was his clue, he recalls, that she was contemplating a Senate run.
Nearly a decade and two Senate elections later, as Sen. Clinton runs for president, her long view from nomination to White House has colored her strategy and her approach to issues from the start.
It helps explain perhaps her most controversial moves to date: Her early refusal to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq, and her more recent hard-line vote in the Senate on Iran, to designate its elite Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Both stands have been unpopular with Democratic caucus and primary voters. But campaign supporters say such positions serve to persuade voters more generally that a woman has the strength to be commander-in-chief, and isn’t afraid to use force.
The long view is reflected, too, in the details of her universal health-care plan. In addressing not just the needs of the uninsured, but also the concerns about health-care quality and cost of middle-class Americans who are insured, she convinced many skeptics that she did learn from the Clintons’ failed health-care proposal of the mid-1990s. In contrast, her lack of details on plans for Social Security, global warming and other problems awaiting the next president reflect a wariness of taking stands — on taxes, for instance — that could give Republicans ammunition in 2008.
On trade, Sen. Clinton has played to the union voters who are influential in Democratic nomination contests, shifting to a more protectionist line from the free-trade position of her husband’s administration. But she has not gone so far as rival John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator.
Even in fund raising, the Clinton campaign from the start encouraged early donors to think ahead to the general election. They were asked to give $4,600 — the maximum $2,300 for the primaries, as well as another $2,300 to be held for fall 2008.
Clinton advisers are adamant that they — and their candidate — don’t take the nomination for granted, let alone the election. Yet even in Iowa, from the start Sen. Clinton had one eye on the nomination and another on the general election and beyond.
She started behind in state polls to both Mr. Edwards, who had maintained his Iowa ties since his second-place showing in the 2004 presidential caucuses, and Sen. Obama, who benefited from being a fresh face from next-door Illinois. By October, she had pulled ahead of both men in polls of likely caucus-goers.
With frequent campaigning in Iowa — about 30 trips so far since January — Sen. Clinton sought to prove to voters, who relish their vetting role, that she doesn’t take the nomination for granted. She followed the model that got her elected twice in New York, trying to meet as many people as possible, even in Republican-leaning areas, to dispel many voters’ ice-queen image of her.
But with antiwar sentiment particularly strong among Iowa Democrats, her 2002 Iraq vote was a liability initially. Mr. Edwards apologized for his own Iraq vote, and pressed Sen. Clinton to do the same. She refused, even as voters at her early events challenged her and antiwar protesters picketed. Over time, her emphasis on the future — promising to end the war as president — neutralized the issue, polls and voter interviews show.
Chief strategist and pollster Mark Penn is said to be the main force in the Clinton inner circle for thinking ahead to the general-election campaign, even to the discomfort of some advisers who fret about primary-election politics. Advisers say Mr. Penn argued internally that for Sen. Clinton to apologize or admit a mistake on the war vote would be seen as a sign of weakness for a woman seeking to be commander-in-chief, especially among independents needed in the general election.
But advisers insist Sen. Clinton went with her own instincts: “She was dead set against apologizing. Dead set against it,” says communications director Howard Wolfson. “She didn’t think she had anything to apologize for.” Even Democrats who were privately critical for months now say her determined stand was the politically smart move.
With a discipline rivaling that of George W. Bush’s campaigns, Sen. Clinton and her advisers all year have hammered the message that she has the strength and experience to change the nation’s course. Their effectiveness is evident in polls and focus groups that show even most Republicans give Sen. Clinton high grades for being strong and competent.
While that would bode well for a general election, internally some advisers — including some with Iowa experience — insisted early on that Sen. Clinton also had to work on one other crucial factor just to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. “Some of us would say, ‘But they’ve got to like you,’ ” recalls Lorraine Voles, who, along with her husband, formerly worked for Iowa’s Sen. Tom Harkin. “She got it. She understood.” Ms. Voles has now left the Clinton campaign and is an independent consultant.
Sen. Clinton entered the race last winter with the highest negative poll ratings for likability of any candidate. To reintroduce herself, in effect, to Democratic voters and independents, Sen. Clinton was routinely scheduled for two hours at each stop — one hour for her speech and voters’ questions, another to chat, sign autographs and smile for photographs as long as any voter remained. While still high, her negatives have abated in Iowa and nationally.
Now the campaign for the nomination has entered a new and final phase: the time for sustained attacks on the front-runner.
Before a pre-Halloween debate in Philadelphia, her chief rival, Sen. Obama, announced that he would take a more confrontational stance. At the debate, the other rivals took jabs as well. Sen. Clinton held her own for much of the two hours, but hedged on several questions — most memorably, a late one on whether illegal immigrants should have drivers licenses.
Her response provided a case study in the political and personal crosscurrents that Sen. Clinton is navigating. Politically, a simple “no” to licensing undocumented workers would have undercut her state’s Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, who had proposed such a plan. And it could have alienated Democratic Hispanic voters who fear that anti-immigrant fever is making potential targets of all Spanish-speakers.
A “yes,” on the other hand, would be video fodder for Republican attack ads in the general election. Bill Clinton is warning Democrats privately against falling into such traps, according to some party members; he predicts Republicans will pound Democrats on the immigration issue in the general election because the Republican party’s traditional strong suit — the national-security card — has been neutralized by President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war.
But on top of political calculations over licensing illegal immigrants, Sen. Clinton the policy wonk is mindful of the arguments that some state and local law-enforcement officials have made: There are an estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S., and absent an overhaul of immigration law, the many drivers among them should be encouraged to get licensed — and insured — for public safety.
That is the policy argument she tried to express at the Oct. 30 debate.
To admirers and sometimes frustrated aides, such episodes are evidence of the “responsibility gene.” “She will not say certain things,” says longtime Clinton counselor Robert Barnett. “There’s a level of responsibility she feels that what she says now should accurately predict what she’d do as president.”
Clinton critics see it differently. Nearly two weeks later, Sen. Obama was still seeking advantage at her expense. “Not answering questions because we’re afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do it,” he told an audience of 9,000 Democrats in Iowa that included Sen. Clinton.
Meanwhile, under withering attack in New York, Gov. Spitzer dropped his hugely unpopular license plan. The next day — on the eve of another debate — Sen. Clinton issued a statement that, as president, she would oppose licenses for illegal immigrants.
After two weeks of bad press, she arrived at last Thursday’s debate in Las Vegas ready to give a flat “no” when the question inevitably came at her again.
At the outset, Clinton advisers were wary of such debates. Front-runners have the most to lose in sharing a stage with underdogs gunning for them, and the confrontations could provide grist for Republican attack ads should she be the nominee. Yet Sen. Clinton’s recent debate flap aside, the unprecedented number of televised debates proved to be a huge help, even rival campaigns acknowledge, as she consistently got high marks. While few voters watch the debates, many hear the reviews for days afterward.
Says Mr. Wolfson, “They ended up reinforcing our message: One of these people is ready to be president on Day One.”
Write to Jackie Calmes at email@example.com
* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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