People are passionate about Senator Clinton. For 2008, is that the problem or the solution?
ROCHESTER, N.Y.If Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the White House, it will be thanks to voters like Barbara Paris. A conservative Democrat who has nonetheless supported Republicans as far back as Ronald Reagan, Paris hated Clinton when she first ran for U.S. Senate from New York in 2000. The 58-year-old tax adviser considered the first lady to be a carpetbagger, and, worse, a political opportunist for sticking with her husband after the Monica Lewinsky affair. So she supported Clinton's Republican opponent.
Last week, though, Paris was one of the New Yorkers who sent Clinton back to Washington with 67 percent of the vote. "It was a long shot, but she's proven herself," Paris said while attending a Clinton speech here just before Election Day. "She's spent lots of time in Rochester." Paris has become such a fan that she begged her daughter to let her take her granddaughter out of school to see Clinton, whom Paris now calls a role model.
Across the Empire State, voter after voter tells a similar story, of deep skepticism toward the former first lady giving way to admiration during her first term. They cite her forays to all corners of the state and her focus on local issues, including staving off closure of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and securing $20 billion after 9/11. But with Clinton now having to decide whether to seek the White House in '08, she faces a familiar dilemma: Can she overcome the nation's entrenched views of herand her husbandin a presidential campaign? For the presumed Democratic front-runner, the answer is unclear. A Gallup Poll this year found that 17 percent of Americans would definitely back her and that 49 percent would definitely not, but that less than 1 percent had no opinion.
Converts. To be sure, Clinton has converted plenty of skeptics in the Senate. "Older members had this 'We're going to put her in her place' attitude," says Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "But she has the power to change minds. Those who stereotype her don't know what they're talking about."
So far, though, Clinton has changed minds by countering that stereotype in person, with audiences much smaller than the national electorate. Having difficulty winning support from women in New York in 2000, she organized informal meetings with groups of a few dozen women, then let the positive reviews spread by word of mouth. Replicating that operation even in the four early primary statesIowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolinawould be daunting. And unlike her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Senator Clinton has had trouble winning converts through TV ads and interviews.
Of course, Clinton also has major assets. "She's got a huge fundraising base, a campaign team of die-hard Hillary lovers, and has rock-star status," says a Democratic strategist. "Plus, she's very smart and has been down this [presidential] track a few times." Clinton's money machine, which raked in $38 million for last week's election, has other candidates asking donors to consider them as backups, should Clinton decide not to run.