Hillary: The Closer She Gets

She's smart, she's misunderstood, and she's raising millions in Florida.

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click to enlarge CUE THE THEME: Hillary Clinton's campaign video mirrors the final scene of the Sopranos finale. -  -  -  - HIS DAYS ARE NUMBERED -  -  - TargetDate = "01/20/2009 5:00 AM"; - BackColor = "black"; - ForeColor = "white"; - fontFamily = "verdana"; - CountActive = true; - CountStepper = -1; - LeadingZero = true; - DisplayFormat = "%%D%% Days, %%H%% Hours, %%M%% Minutes, %%S%% Seconds."; - FinishMessage = "It is finally here!"; -  -  -  -  -  - Joseph Di Nicola
Joseph Di Nicola
CUE THE THEME: Hillary Clinton's campaign video mirrors the final scene of the Sopranos finale.

HIS DAYS ARE NUMBERED

In preparation for the Florida primary on Jan. 29, 2008 (and for the end of the Bush administration on Jan. 20, 2009), we begin a series this week that examines all the major candidates for president, with an emphasis on the issues they are discussing and their supporters in Tampa Bay. We kick off the series with the Democratic frontrunner:

Local organizers had only eight days in February to pull together a fundraising event for Hillary Clinton in Tampa. Still, they managed to put together about 75 people who were willing to spend at least $1,000 a head to sit with this nation's best-known female politician.

That kind of money buys you a close look at a Hillary that many don't get to see, behind the layers of caricature, speculation and, yes, hatred that obscure the former First Lady.

The fundraiser was an 8 a.m. breakfast at a Westshore hotel.

"She came in the night before. She looked great, she sounded great, and people walked away saying, 'Wow, I've never seen that side of Hillary Clinton,'" said one of the organizers, former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman.

Up close, according to local supporters who have been with her on several campaign stops, Clinton's media persona as tough, calculating bitch evaporates. By many accounts, the senator from New York is extremely engaging, humorous, even self-deprecating. She's smaller than she looks on TV. She's not warm and fuzzy, but she's getting there.

She is, though, hyper-intelligent.

"She can speak on any subject," Freedman remembers about that day in February. "I literally had to pull her off the podium. She had six other events that day in Florida. She would have stayed there all day answering questions. It was in-depth understanding. Not sound bites."

As Clinton tries to achieve so many firsts in her campaign for the White House — the first woman elected president, the first spouse of a president to win — she's the Democratic frontrunner despite opposition within her own party for her vote authorizing the Iraq War and her continuing refusal to say she was wrong.

Can she translate her centrist platform and demeanor into one pleasing enough — and yet tough enough — to win the presidency? Can she overcome the perception, especially among moderate voters, that she can't win against a Republican?

In Florida, supporters have bet $1.8 million in campaign contributions that she can. The vast amount of that money comes from the Democratic ATM that is South Florida, but her financial backers in Tampa Bay include Hillsborough Clerk of the Courts Pat Frank; Tampa lawyers Jonathan Alpert, Jim Porter, Chris Griffin and Harry Cohen; and neurosurgeon, author and health-care advocate Donald Mellman.

The key for Clinton has been to soften her image, make her look more fun and yet strong at the same time. So cue up her campaign-video parody of the Sopranos' final scene in which she and Bill sit in a diner booth and unveil her campaign theme song. (Never mind that it's sung by the terribly unhip Celine Dion.)

If Democrats expected Clinton to be a liberal firebrand post-White House, they've certainly been confounded and, at times, downright angered by her more centrist path, including her vote to authorize the war. She avoids simple answers, either on principle or by design, to try to steer in the middle of the road. Consider this exchange from last week, when Chris Matthews of Hardball asked her if she believed in evolution, the same question that prompted three Republican candidates to say no, they didn't.

Clinton went beyond a quick affirmation of Darwin into a strong and simple argument for reconciling faith and science:

"One of the problems of the current administration is that they have confused us. I consider myself a person of faith, a religious person, and I don't see any conflict between believing in the power of the Almighty to have created this extraordinary world we're part of in ways that I can't possibly understand and going to the museum and seeing a dinosaur. I think that those go hand in hand. So let's not confuse the two. Let's keep our faith strong, those of us who are people of faith, but also let's let our scientists do the work that will break through all kinds of barriers, including stem-cell research, to keep us healthy and give us a better life."

Clinton's campaign has not run as an anti-Bush screed. Instead, she seeks the same triangulation that her husband so famously created to win two terms in the nation's top job: expanding the middle class after eight years of an administration that rendered it invisible, improving equality for blacks and women, and solving the nation's health care crisis.

Local supporters cite other reasons for their support than those issues.

"She has been tested under the fire, and you really need to be tested under the fire to hold this position," said St. Petersburg lawyer Martin Rice, who attended the February fundraiser. "You have to be able to let things roll off your back, when the personal attacks start flying."

""She's been in the trenches," echoed Ana Cruz, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party and a Tampa consultant. "She understands what a rigorous campaign is all about. She understands how to define issues and how to solve problems."

April Griffin, a Hillsborough School Board member, has also met with Clinton and endorsed her candidacy, along with her board colleague Susan Valdez. For Griffin, the substantive reason to elect Clinton is her stance on fixing the flawed Bush education reform plan, No Child Left Behind. But she cites a less-issue-oriented benefit to Clinton's election.

"No. 1 is that we would get Bill back," Griffin laughs. "You get two for the price of one."

And finally, there is the gender thing.

Freedman said she was glad to be out of politics and had even sworn not to write any more campaign checks. "The more I thought about it, I had been an advocate for women in politics for years, and here we have maybe the most qualified candidate we have ever had and certainly the most qualified in the race," Freedman said. "If I don't get involved, who is going to get involved?"

Gender is a double-edged sword, however. Clinton "suffers from one of the problems that most of the women in politics suffer from: You have to look tough and be tough and never smile," Freedman explained. For many voters, that makes female politicians sound shrill and strident.

And that gender bias shows up in polling. She gets high marks for leadership and experience. She gets low marks for likeability. Still, because of years of campaigning here for her husband and her party, Clinton has a built-in base of fundraisers and supporters that gives her a leg up for the primary.

"She's in the driver's seat in Florida," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "Somebody would have to prove differently to me."

Other than Obama's group of O-Train volunteers in Tampa, no candidate has much of an organization on the ground yet. With the Florida primary moved up to Jan. 29, that fact is changing as the various campaigns begin to figure out how much of a campaign they can afford to create in the Sunshine State.

Clinton will have the money and connections to build an effective organization in this state. But back to that crucial question: Can she beat a Republican? Polling has long shown that national voters want a Democrat to win the White House this time out. But when specific names, such as Clinton's, are put in front of them, their enthusiasm drops. Her supporters insist that is not a problem that is uniquely Clinton's.

"I think it will be a struggle for any candidate at this point. We've had very lazy voters," Cruz said. "Middle-of-the-road Democrats, they're just tough ... to motivate. I think the Democratic Party has lost a lot of those people because we've not had a central message."

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