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Chelsea Clinton talks policy in Obama territory

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign is sending her daughter into the heart of enemy-occupied territory: college campuses in the grip of Obama fever.
/ Source: The New York Times

The question was one she had heard before, but this time it was asked in downright hostile terms.

“Has your mother shown any remorse for the fact that her vote cost Iraqis a million of their lives?” a student asked Chelsea Clinton on Monday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ms. Clinton replied: “She cast a vote based on the best available evidence. Perhaps you had clairvoyance then, and that’s extraordinary.”

As Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign tries to win some younger voters, her daughter is parachuting into the heart of enemy-occupied territory: college campuses in the grip of Obama fever, both in must-win and lost-cause states for her mother’s candidacy. On Saturday and Sunday, Ms. Clinton will campaign in Hawaii, the childhood home of Senator Barack Obama.

For nearly the first year of her mother’s presidential bid, Ms. Clinton, 27, was practically invisible to voters. Just before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, she began appearing in the tableau of flags and signs behind her mother at speeches. But when it became clear that Mr. Obama was making off with many people her age, Ms. Clinton decided to speak out. Unlike most other family members who hit the campaign trail, she does not offer an intimate portrait of the candidate, and she recounts old family stories only when her audiences clamor for one. (Memory lane can be a dangerous place: waxing about White House Christmases might remind voters of just how many her family has already had.)

Instead, she upholds another Clinton tradition: blitzing her targets with policy details. In a single hour of responding to questions at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Tuesday, Ms. Clinton talked about Medicare Part D, the distinction between the chronically and occasionally uninsured, health care premium caps, Pell grant allowance maximums, income contingency repayment programs for financial aid, sugar-based ethanol and carbon sequestration. That is not counting her detours into Romanian reproductive policy and the design of the internal combustion engine.

“It was a little over my head,” admitted Stephanie Biese, the founder of the Students for Hillary chapter on the Madison campus, about an exchange Ms. Clinton had with another attendee about nuclear base loads.

At these appearances, Ms. Clinton, on leave from her job at a New York hedge fund, greets her audience, plugs her mother’s Web site and asks for questions. Thin, with strawberry blonde hair that has none of its adolescent frizz, Ms. Clinton dresses with good-girl chic: muted colors, necklines that are high and skirt hems that are not. Her voice is huskier than her mother’s, but she has her habit of opening her eyes wide to emphasize a point.

“You can applaud for that,” she tells audiences when she hears a few claps, encouraging others to join in.

They do, but there is no mistaking the political climate at many of the universities and colleges where Ms. Clinton appears. After Steven Lawrence, a student on the Madison campus, left Ms. Clinton’s event wearing a campaign sticker, another student yelled, “I’m ashamed of you!” Mr. Lawrence said he had been leaning toward Mr. Obama, but might shift his loyalties to Mrs. Clinton after hearing her daughter.

“She came off as more of a regular person answering questions, but with an incredible amount of knowledge,” he said.

Elsewhere, Ms. Clinton has been confronted with signs bearing messages like “America deserves better than aristocracy” and “Got Pimp?” a reference to a recent remark by a now-suspended MSNBC host who claimed that Mrs. Clinton was exploiting her daughter.

But in a political race that has become a delegate-by-delegate fight, Clinton campaign officials say Ms. Clinton could make a difference. Before Feb. 5, she sped through 15 of the 22 states that voted that day, and has been to Maine, Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin since. While it is impossible to tell how many votes Ms. Clinton is winning, the campaign invites the local news media to each stop, meaning that Ms. Clinton is popping up on evening broadcasts everywhere she goes.

There is no asking Ms. Clinton, who does not give interviews, exactly why she threw herself into her mother’s bid — which, if successful, will rob her of some of the privacy she is said to cherish.

But a furious, provocative essay that Ms. Clinton mass-blasted to her friends and acquaintances on Feb. 4 provides clues. She wrote that she did not agree with everything the essay’s author, Robin Morgan, a former editor of Ms. Magazine, said. (Ms. Morgan argues that Mrs. Clinton has faced not only a sexist double standard but also “sociopathic woman-hating.”)

But until jeering men insulted her mother in New Hampshire and the news media made light of it, Ms. Clinton wrote, “I confess I didn’t entirely get ‘it.’ ”

Ben Werschkul contributed reporting from College Park, Md.