Image: Clinton
Joshua Lott  /  Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters Monday during a campaign stop at the Gigglin’ Goat Restaurant in Boone, Iowa.
updated 10/8/2007 11:28:58 PM ET 2007-10-09T03:28:58

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, ahead in polls and fund-raising and seeking to position herself as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is doing what candidates in her position like to do: avoiding risky moves, sidestepping clashes with rivals from her own party and trying to run simultaneously as a primary and general-election candidate.

The strategy reflects a growing confidence among Mrs. Clinton’s aides that she has so far weathered the intense personal scrutiny her candidacy has attracted. But it carries risks for any candidate — and particularly for one named Clinton, as she has found in recent days.

In trying to appeal both to the Democrats’ liberal base and to a more centrist general-election audience, Mrs. Clinton, like her husband before her, risks feeding into the assessment of critics that she is more about political calculation than about conviction. That point has been driven home these past few days in her efforts to present herself as the antiwar hawk: vowing to an audience of Democrats to end the war in Iraq while voting in Congress for a harder line against Iran, a move that some Democrats argue could lead to another war.

That vote led an Iowa Democrat to challenge her heatedly on Sunday in a testy exchange that ended when she apologized for accusing him of being a plant for a rival campaign. And it was mocked Monday by a statement from the Republican National Committee that pointedly described it as Mrs. Clinton’s “Iran calculation,” and condemned by one Democratic opponent, former Senator John Edwards, who suggested that Mrs. Clinton was giving President Bush license to wage war in Iran.

‘Misplaced comfort’
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to another Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, said: “She has straddled a lot of issues, but I think this one was a miscalculation born of a misplaced comfort of where she is in the process. She got caught looking ahead to a general election.”

Beyond the matter of trying to please two groups of voters at once, Mrs. Clinton’s adoption of a front-runner’s posture has made her an object of attacks not only by fellow Democrats but also by Republicans, who see in her an easy target, and by editorial writers, now judging her as her party’s likely presidential nominee.

And her campaign’s apparent moves to limit her appearances in uncontrolled environments like news conferences and meetings with voters run counter to the political culture of Iowa and New Hampshire, even though such tactics are common for a candidate in the lead.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers dispute the notion that she is engaged in an exercise of triangulation, to use the word that came to describe her husband’s politics.

“She’s been running a primary campaign that’s also been doing well in the general,” said Mark Penn, her senior campaign strategist. “The positions she took on the issues was that it was right to end the Iraq war and also right to be strong against terrorism. That has been the key to a primary campaign that happens to be successful in the general.”

Her aides also deny that she is running a take-no-chances campaign, pointing to the health plan she offered last month as an example.

Still, as more polls come in suggesting that her position is strengthening — the Iowa Poll published in The Des Moines Register on Sunday showed her taking the lead away from Mr. Edwards among likely caucusgoers — the contrast between her campaign and those of her rivals would suggest otherwise.

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While Mr. Obama, for instance, spent last week delivering speeches that set an ambitious goal of eliminating the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and implicitly attacking Mrs. Clinton for initially supporting the war in Iraq, she gave a speech criticizing the Bush administration’s policies on science and announced that she was beginning a “Middle Class Express” bus tour through Iowa.

Nor has she frequently engaged in full-blown question-and-answer sessions with reporters of late. A review of her daily campaign schedule since Labor Day shows that she has spent much of her time delivering speeches and headlining rallies, with few town-hall-style meetings or other public events where voters can ask her questions — exchanges that were a staple of her schedule in the spring and early summer, and that continue to be routine for Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama.

‘Pretty good at evasion’
Indeed, the Iowa meeting where Mrs. Clinton was confronted on the Iran vote was notable precisely because it was so unusual. It was arranged after she had expressed concern to aides that she not appear guilty of hubris, and after reporters had begun asking her advisers about the safe road she appeared to be traveling.

At least some voters appear to be noticing that road. Mrs. Clinton came under fire after a debate in which she declined to say whether she would consider two proposals for dealing with Social Security: raising the retirement age or the payroll tax. “It seems like whenever Hillary is asked a question, she’s pretty good at evasion,” said Steve Maxon, 60, an undecided Democrat from Wellman, Iowa.

With the first of the nominating contests only three months away, the campaign is entering what promises to be a turbulent period in which Mrs. Clinton will come under attack from both inside and outside her party. And if past campaigns are any guide, this will also be a time of “Clinton in trouble” accounts in the press, inspired by missteps or any signs of slippage, real or merely perceived.

In short, the strategy will now be put to its most severe test.

Patrick Healy contributed reporting from Boone, Iowa, and Jeff Zeleny from Washington, Iowa.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


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