Warming up to Hillary

Last spring, we gave a party honoring a friend who had written a book. The buzz among the guests was all about Barack Obama. One close ally of the Clintons confided that he was dumping his old pals and joining up with the young senator from Illinois.

Last weekend we gave a party honoring a friend who was leaving town, and the mood was strikingly different. Many guests were conceding the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. They agreed with Sonya McMahon of San Diego, who once saw Hillary as “harsh and cold” but now discerns a “softening” in the New York senator. “I say to myself, ‘that’s not so bad,’” McMahon told The New York Times. “I’ve warmed up to her.”

So what has happened over the last six months? Or more precisely, what has not happened?

For one thing, Obama has not capitalized on his brisk start and stunning financial success. His campaign has stalled. He’s still fresh and appealing, but the impression is growing that after only two years in the Senate, he’s just not ready for the Oval Office. He might well be president someday, but not this time around.

Meanwhile, Hillary has made few mistakes. She comes across as sensible, sure-footed, disciplined. She appeared on five different Sunday shows last week, facing the best interviewers in the business, and no one laid a glove on her.



As a result, Clinton continues to lead Obama by about 20 points in most national polls. Though the numbers are closer in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s hard to see how Obama makes up that ground before real voters start casting ballots in January.

“You used to be able to say the front-runners – her and Obama – but I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Joe Trippi, a top adviser to John Edwards, told the Times. “It’s pretty clear that she has sort of pulled away.”

Clinton has become particularly adept at turning drawbacks into assets. Instead of adopting the conventional view that her gender is a weakness, she’s treating it as an advantage. She’s emphasizing the subject, not avoiding it, and since 54 percent of the voters in the last election were women, that’s a shrewd move.

Start with her announcement, a video shot in a comfortable living room with the candidate proposing to have a “conversation” with the voters. No male candidate would ever do that. She talks regularly about her role as wife, mother and daughter – no male candidate could ever do that. And her signature issue, health care, is aimed directly at moms who worry about insurance coverage for their kids. (How many dads spend time at the pediatrician’s office?)

The strategy is working. In the latest Quinnipiac College poll, Clinton leads Obama by three points among men, and by 23 points among women. Sixty-one percent of females like her at least a little bit; only 44 percent of males feel that way.

The second liability she’s turned into a plus is her experience in Washington. Republicans are hoping that Americans are sick of the Clintons (and certainly many are), but it’s a dangerous world, and her years at the center of power are playing strongly in her favor.

When the Pew Research Center asked Democratic voters to associate candidates with certain words, two out of three called Hillary “tough” and half labeled her “smart.”

In fact, Clinton is wearing her scars like battle ribbons. “Obviously, we made a lot of mistakes” she conceded on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” describing her failed battle for health care in the 1990s. And on ABC’s “This Week” she added, “I think that what is so uniquely American about the American experience is that, you know, you get knocked down, you get back.”

Americans want a president who’s been “knocked down,” who’s learned from disaster, who’s triumphed over adversity. And Hillary is using her greatest debacle to tap into the national myth of recovery and redemption.

Of course, she remains a deeply divisive figure. Two-fifths of voters don’t like her, a serious handicap in a general election. Older married women remain more suspicious of her than younger single females. She gets low marks for honesty, trustworthiness and friendliness. And she still staggers under the label “liberal,” with only one-in-four conservative women and one-in-five conservative men viewing her positively.

Still, she’s had a very good six months. Voters are warming to her. It is now, for the first time, entirely possible to imagine Hillary Rodham Clinton as the next president.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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