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Chelsea Clinton finds voice on campaign trail

With little fanfare the other day, Chelsea Clinton did what no one around her is ever supposed to do: She voluntarily brought up the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Image: Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton addresses a rally at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on March 5, 2008. Matt Rourke / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With little fanfare the other day, Chelsea Clinton did what no one around her is ever supposed to do: She voluntarily brought up the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Speaking to a packed crowd of college students and recounting her mother's history of working with Republicans, the youngest Clinton talked for a minute about Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who as a House member during the impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton was "one of the people who prosecuted my father in the 1990s," she said. Not "someone you would think would be an ally for someone with the last name Clinton," the 28-year-old added wryly.

Nor someone her audience would expect her to mention. But if her self-assurance was a surprise, it was also part of a rapid evolution by Clinton, who has gone from a behind-the-scenes supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to her mother's most effective surrogate, capable of engaging in detailed policy discussions as well as explaining how the senator from New York "misspoke" in describing landing once in Bosnia under sniper fire.

She bristled the first time she was questioned about Lewinsky, telling a college student last month, "I do not think that is any of your business." But since then she has learned to handle even that subject, refining her answer every time it has come up. "If that's what you want to vote on, that's what you should vote on," she said when asked about the impeachment during an appearance at Purdue University on Monday.

In light of a string of setbacks for her mother's campaign, including impolitic remarks by her father, Chelsea is arguably the most seamless part of the struggling Clinton operation. After spending the first year of the presidential campaign watching quietly from New York, and after a lifetime of relatively little public exposure, she now maintains a schedule of public appearances to rival her parents' — an event at Villanova University on Thursday will be her 100th college campus appearance.

Facebook welcome
The once and perhaps future first daughter is branching out in ways that the Clinton campaign — which practically had to beg the candidate to allow her to appear in Iowa late last year — never imagined. She regularly calls donors to thank them for contributions, an important task usually reserved for her parents; she records automated telephone calls to voters; and this week she posted a "welcome note" on her Facebook page, launching her first real effort to use the networking Web site on her mother's behalf.

"Please check in to see when I will be in your area," it reads. "My event info should be posted on my page going forward. I would also love your help in building my Facebook network, so please suggest me as a friend to all of your friends!"

Yet a certain tension persists between the high school and college student of the 1990s, whose private life was zealously guarded while her father was president, and the accomplished professional woman courting publicity and playing a familiar role in American politics: enhancing a candidate's image as a parent and an embodiment of family values.

Clinton has declined interviews; only a few authorized insiders are allowed to talk about her; she is even shielded by her mother at difficult moments as the campaign has tried to use her wattage to attract votes without exposing her to the rigors, such as talking with the news media, that most adult public figures expect. That has produced some hostility between her and reporters, and led to criticism that she is trying to have it both ways.

Tagg Romney, who with his four brothers played a prominent role in the unsuccessful campaign of their father, Mitt Romney, recalled that when his father was entering the Republican race, outside advisers warned the grown children: "If your dad is going to run, you're the collateral damage." He thinks a certain amount of scrutiny is inevitable.

"I don't know if it's fair to go deep into candidates' children's personal lives, because I'm not sure that really affects the way the candidate makes decisions," said Romney, 37. "But if you're willing to put yourself out there, then you need to be able to answer questions."

In public, Clinton displays her mother's memory, wit and mannerisms — and can look and act so much like her that audience members frequently call her "Hillary." Privately, she shows the same sharp instincts as her father and the same seemingly inexhaustible capacity for campaigning.

As a measure of how fully formed her political world is, there are now distinct "Chelsea people" — two longtime Clinton loyalists, Bari Lurie and Philippe Reines, who travel with her and handle everything from media requests to the unwieldy "Hillblazers" banner she hangs at appearances; an advance staffer, Paige Fitzgerald, who arranges her increasingly crowded events; her scheduler, Kyla Pollack; and Capricia Marshall, who manages the unit from campaign headquarters along with adviser Minyon Moore.

This week, as members of the group traveled around Indiana, they had their own plane.

'The Chelsea effect'
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has won many of the states that have been Chelsea targets, but what is known within the campaign as the "Chelsea effect" has been her ability to limit Obama's margins of victory — such as in Vermont, where she was the only Clinton to campaign and where Obama did not exceed the 62.5 percent popular-vote threshold that would have earned him two more delegates.

Hillary Clinton has made inroads among younger voters in a few states since the first contest, in Iowa on Jan. 3, when she was trounced in part because that demographic supported Obama so strongly. She ran evenly with Obama among under-30 voters in Massachusetts and California, and she won them in Arkansas.

At one college stop, at West Chester University last month, Chelsea Clinton drew a motley assortment of noisy young Clinton supporters, older campaign workers from the area -- and a handful of students carrying signs for Sen. John McCain. Like her parents, Clinton was quick to note the detractors in the room; when the McCain supporters took their signs outside and pointed them through a window, she went out of her way to address them.

"If they want to ask questions, I'm happy to answer them as well," she said.

'I love hugs'
With similar adroitness, she has learned to address suitors (politely turning down date invitations with references to her boyfriend); to respond to offers of hugs ("I love hugs!" she says); and to deflect questions, which come more frequently now than ever, about whether she would play a role in her mother's administration, run for office herself, or potentially, if her mother loses to Obama or McCain, become the first female president.

She has a ready quip for each, saying she has no desire to move back in with her parents. "I have an apartment, a job, a dog and a boyfriend, and at some point, I'm going to go back to that life," she says.

That life includes a job with a six-figure salary at Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund in New York. Previously, she worked as a consultant at McKinsey, where colleagues praised her for keeping a relatively low profile and delving deeply into the subject matter; in many cases her work involved health-care accounts.

Her boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky, sometimes joins her on the road now that she is gone so much. Mezvinsky, who has known Clinton since childhood, works at Goldman Sachs and is the son of two former House members, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, who lost her seat after supporting the 1993 Clinton tax increase, and Ed Mezvinsky of Iowa, who is in prison for fraud.

Like her mother, Clinton has a flair for wonkish details and academic-sounding words — proposals for "incentivizing" corporations, doubling family education tax credits and introducing "green vehicular bonds" to automakers all roll off her tongue. Rarely does she duck a substantive question; after hearing her speak recently at an assisted-living home in Bensalem, a suburb of Philadelphia, several of the elderly residents said they were stunned by her command of health-care policy detail.

But the sensational questions and commentary have drawn the most attention, beginning with an MSNBC anchor's comment that Clinton is being "pimped out" by the campaign, with selected public appearances but no media interviews. Campaign officials pushed back hard, and the candidate herself wrote a letter of complaint. The network responded by suspending the anchor, David Shuster, who apologized.

Besides Clinton's answers to questions about Lewinsky and impeachment, one other recent response also generated some attention. Asked if she thought her mother would be a better president than her father, she said: "I don't take anything for granted, but hopefully with Pennsylvania's help she will be our next president. And yes, I do think she'll be a better president."

On Wednesday in Pittsburgh, her mother laughed when she was asked about Chelsea's endorsement of her over the former president, reacting with the reserve she often shows when the subject of her daughter is broached. "I think I've got two great surrogates," she said.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.