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After delay, Clinton embarks on likability tour

Hillary Clinton has embarked this week on a warm-and-fuzzy tour, blitzing full throttle by helicopter across Iowa to present herself as likable and heartwarming, a complement to her “strength and experience” message that the campaign felt a female candidate needed first.
/ Source: The New York Times

The tableau was classic Clinton: Bill Clinton chatting with African-American cashiers and baggers at a grocery store here Tuesday, telling them how wonderful Hillary Rodham Clinton was, while she waited quietly for him to finish so they could dazzle more voters.

The couple’s one-two political punch, still going strong after three decades, has special import now: Mrs. Clinton has embarked this week on a warm-and-fuzzy tour, blitzing full throttle by helicopter across Iowa to present herself as likable and heartwarming, a complement to her “strength and experience” message that the campaign felt a female candidate needed first.

Now another major question faces the Clinton team in Iowa: Did it wait too long to try to humanize Hillary? The presidential caucuses are little more than two weeks away, Mrs. Clinton’s negative poll ratings remain high, and some of her advisers wanted to accentuate her personal side earlier.

Instead, until now she has embraced a variety of other strategies, and faces a high hurdle as she competes for popularity against a familiar face (former Senator John Edwards) and a charismatic newcomer (Senator Barack Obama).

Mrs. Clinton addressed the challenge head-on with reporters Tuesday at the grocery store, a frenzied scene where Mr. Clinton delayed a photo opportunity with his wife by giving an interview to “Entertainment Tonight,” and where their special guest, the former basketball star Magic Johnson, was a bit off message in noting Mrs. Clinton’s experience rather than what a nice person she was.

As her husband and Mr. Johnson looked on, Mrs. Clinton told the reporters: “I know that people have been saying, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got to know more about her, we want to know more about her personally.’ And I totally get that. It’s a little hard for me. It’s not easy for me to talk about myself.”

Or, as Mr. Clinton put it a few minutes later, “We want to give people a good sense of her, not only as a leader but as a person.”

Mr. Clinton’s role in all this is particularly interesting. He has been unleashed in ways that he never was in the 2000 campaign, when his favored candidate, Al Gore, kept him on the bench. At that time, the Gore camp worried that Mr. Clinton was scandal-scarred and that the candidate needed to appear like his own man. (In 2004, Mr. Clinton was recovering from heart surgery and did not campaign for the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, until the final weeks.)

Mrs. Clinton appears to have fewer doubts about conveying independence. She is counting on her husband to help voters color in her human side, and Mr. Clinton has embraced that role with a vengeance.

“We faced Clinton fatigue and Clinton scandals in 2000, and had to navigate Gore around that, but now it’s very different,” said Donna Brazile, who served as a campaign manager for Mr. Gore and is a friend of the Clintons. “Bill Clinton has rehabilitated himself in terms of his stature, and he has a great opportunity to help her win.”

But he is only one weapon in the campaign’s efforts, as Mrs. Clinton said Tuesday, “to kind of round out who I am as a person.” After months of holding off campaign officials who wanted to roll out her mother, Dorothy, and her daughter, Chelsea, Mrs. Clinton recently relented, and the two women happily joined her in Iowa and were videotaped for soft-glow political commercials.

Farmers from New York State, some of them Republicans, are in Iowa talking to farmers about ways she has helped them, and her best friend from the sixth grade is touring Iowa telling stories like the one about the way Hillary Rodham would take off her thick glasses to flirt more confidently with boys.

Delicate timing
The timing is delicate, however. For much of this year, the Clintons concentrated on arguing that Mrs. Clinton was tougher and better prepared than Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards, a posture intended not only to appeal to voters who wanted a tested leader but also to persuade them that a woman was strong enough to be commander in chief.

Image: Hillary, Cllinton, Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson
Former president Bill Clinton, from left, and his wife, Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., take part in a campaign breakfast event with basketball legend Magic Johnson Tuesday Dec. 18, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Steve Pope)Steve Pope / AP

But since November, Iowans have been whipsawed with messages from Mrs. Clinton: She and her allies have attacked Mr. Obama to try to increase his negative ratings, argued in favor of her strength, portrayed her as a force for change and, now, highlighted her persona.

Inside the campaign, the communications director, Howard Wolfson, has been well known for urging that the humanizing effort start earlier, but the campaign decided to emphasize strength and experience instead. Now some voters and advisers wonder if her camp waited too long to address Mrs. Clinton’s personality.

At several of her campaign events recently, Iowans, even some of her own supporters, publicly asked if she was likable enough to win, and some noted that people found her “cold” and “remote.”

Ellen Sweet of Iowa City, who attended a Clinton rally on Monday night, said she was surprised at how nice Mrs. Clinton was.

“I’ve been pledged to Obama for so long, I can’t change, but she moved way up in my mind tonight,” Mrs. Sweet said. “She just came across as appealing and confident in her beliefs. I wish I had seen all these sides of her before.”

To be sure, some Iowans may not ultimately accept the warmer Mrs. Clinton as genuine.

At Mr. Clinton’s campaign stop with Mr. Johnson in Waterloo on Tuesday, Teresa Fagerlind, 58, an activities coordinator at a retirement village, said the former president had persuaded her to support Mrs. Clinton.

“He said some things about her that I hadn’t heard before,” Ms. Fagerlind said.

But her son, Matt, 28, was less persuaded, saying he was not sure that Mr. Clinton was the best one to vouch for his wife. “It’s like my mom saying how great I am,” he said.

Admitting that her own mistakes may have fed unfavorable impressions of her is still not the style of Mrs. Clinton. On Monday night, when asked by someone at the rally why there were people who did not like her, she did not criticize herself or delve into introspection.

“There are people who will never vote for me,” she said. “It breaks my heart, but it’s true.”

Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting.