Crafting the New Hillary
She's removing the rough edges, but not everyone's convinced Senator Clinton is warm and fuzzyor that she's a winner in 2008
With that kind of rhetoric, perhaps it's no wonder that Hillary is just as polarizing as President Bush, maybe more so. Republican strategists, in fact, say she has so many detractors that she could never persuade more than a bare majority of Americans to vote for her. This again raises the nagging question of her electability, long a sore point. Her advisers are doing their best to counteract it.
"Hillary has just come off two landslide elections [for the Senate in New York]," says Mark Penn, Senator Clinton's chief presidential strategist. Penn says Clinton is competitive in all major polls with her likely Republican rivals, and notes that she's leading her Democratic competitors or is near the top of the heap in the early primary and caucus states of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Why Hillary? "People see her as an experienced leader who has what it takes to govern in difficult times," Penn told U.S. News. "They see her as smart, strong ... someone who can relate to international leaders and restore respect to America." Penn says men are drawn to her "strength of leadership" while women, a majority of the electorate and the core of her support, see "the idea she can be the first woman president as an emotional and important event in their lives."
Clinton is also trying to come across as more cautious and centrist, if often ambiguous in her policy stands, to reassure independents and conservatives. In an interview with CNBC's Power Lunch last week, she urged Bush to address fundamental problems in the economy, such as soaring foreign debt and massive budget deficits. She called the stock market plunge a "wake-up call" and encouraged the administration to find some "sensible and reasonable" answers.
So far, the crafting of her new persona appears to be working, at least to a degree. "Hillary," as she prefers to be called, is not only maintaining a lead over Democratic rivals; she has also increased her favorability ratings among voters. In another surprise to critics who have claimed she's unelectable, recent polls find that she is running even with or within striking distance of the leading Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, and running ahead of Mitt Romney.
"The electability argument has faded," a prominent GOP strategist admits. "It's a credit to her and her campaign that she has moderated her personality step by step." In addition to hewing to the center on some issues, such as abortion and free trade, she has talked openly about her belief in prayer and has worked on legislation with a number of conservative senators, including South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, who helped lead the impeachment drive against her husband. And she has refused to endorse immediate withdrawal from Iraq, despite demands from many antiwar activists.
Her aides are also confronting the "Bill problem." Asked if the former president and his history of adultery and impeachment will cause her problems with voters, a senior Hillary aide says, "They wanted him to continue to be their president even in the middle of the [impeachment]. He is living an exemplary life raising hundreds of millions of dollars for charity. And Bill has always been an asset in New York [in Hillary's two campaigns there]." In fact, the Bill problem might be overrated. A new Gallup Poll finds that Americans, by a margin of 70 percent to 28 percent, believe he would be more helpful than harmful to his wife's presidency; 61 percent want him to advise her unofficially.