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Voters Laud Clinton's 'Steel' But Ask: Is She Likable Enough?

In a pair of focus groups in Ohio, general election voters from across the political spectrum said that Clinton can come across as stilted.
Image: Hillary Clinton speaks at the Central Iowa Democrats Fall Barbecue
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Central Iowa Democrats Fall Barbecue in Ames, Iowa November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Mark KauzlarichMARK KAUZLARICH / Reuters

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They say she's tough. She's got a "spine of steel" and "balls," and her experience can't be discounted.

But it's just not that easy to like Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a pair of focus groups in Columbus, Ohio on Monday night, general election voters from across the political spectrum praised the former secretary of state's toughness but complained that she can come across as humorless, stilted and coached. Even supporters worried that her practiced demeanor might obscure her strengths, and skeptics repeatedly questioned her trustworthiness.

"I want to like her. I can be rational and look at it and say I know she's got experience but I just can't deny my feelings about other things," said Carla W. a homemaker who typically votes for Republicans. "The truth is there's probably no perfect candidate, but I guess I do have this connotation about her."

"She is failing miserably at that point, of people being able to trust her," said Thomas D., an undecided 59 year-old from Columbus. "They give her intelligence, they give her 'she's tough,' but whoa!" when it comes to questions about honesty.

Negative adjectives used to describe the former senator included "domineering," "uptight," "icy," "polarizing" and "calculating." Asked to compare her to a fictional character, participants mentioned Disney villainess Malifecent, Cinderella's wicked stepmother, a perturbed Tasmanian Devil and the title character from Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." (Some more charitable people named Wonder Woman and the crisis-managing anti-hero Olivia Pope from ABC's "Scandal.")

The pair of focus groups was conducted by Peter Hart as a project on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. One group was made up entirely of men, one entirely of women.

Beyond the controversies over Benghazi and Clinton's private email server, participants suggested that Clinton's dogged pursuit of the presidency could signal that she places her own ambitions above the well-being of the country.

"I don't feel like she loves our country or that she wants to make the world a better place. I feel like she's scraping to become president and I don't know why," said Cindy S., a Republican-leaning voter who does outreach for a local church.

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Both groups gave Clinton very high marks for political experience and toughness, and overwhelming majorities of both gender-segregated groups said that she's capable of doing the job.

"I am not a Hillary supporter but I think she could handle it, considering her experience. I am able to look beyond my party," said Carla W..

"I don't necessarily agree with her positions, but she is definitely strong," said Alan L., a 32 year-old swing voter who works in IT. "For lack of a better term, she's got some balls. She stands up and stands firm."

But even Democrats who had unqualified praise for Clinton's leadership fretted about her ability to connect with regular Americans.

"She needs to understand her audiences better and get across better because sometimes I think her message gets lost in those negative connotations. And she's smart, so why hasn't she figured that out?" said Rachel B., a 45 year-old Democratic voter. "I want her to figure out how to be genuine in a way that is a little more approachable."

"I'd ask her to tell me a joke," said Scott R., a 35-year old Sanders supporter. "Just to see if she's really human."

"I honestly just want to see that she can be down to earth, she can have that conversation," he added."Politics isn't all about standing up and being serious and showing off how smart you are. It's also about being human and being empathetic."

"She needs to be more human," agreed Brian P., a manufacturing supervisor who supports Clinton. "Smile! Laugh! Joke! There are moments of levity that everybody needs to have."

Ready for a woman at the helm

Both male and female participants said that they believe the country could benefit from a female president, regardless of party. The group of female voters agreed that women excel at multi-tasking and empathy, while several of the men suggested that - despite stereotypes of women being more nurturing - female candidates must prove their mettle as tough leaders to even be considered for the Oval Office.

"They fought to get to where they are. They are strong people, and not necessarily warm and cuddly," Thomas D. said of female candidates Clinton and Carly Fiorina. "I don't want my mom to be president, I want the president to be president. And if that's a woman, that's a good thing."

And both male and female defenders of Clinton argued that she may be judged by a different standard than her male rivals.

"She's criticized because she comes across like a man. She's strong-willed and she says what she has to say and she doesn't say it with a big ol' smile on her face," said Andrea F., a Clinton backer from Lewis Center. "They pick and pick and pick at her for how she's coming across when she's not coming across any different than a man. They just don't like her being so forward."

"She has to play her cards in a way that makes her gender neutral," added Tai C., a 29 year-old Democrat.

A tough night for Trump, Carson and Bush

Top Republicans running for the presidency also faced harsh criticism from these general election voters.

Majorities of both groups expressed doubts that Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush could handle the enormity of the job.

While almost all participants emphasized Carson's intelligence, ten of 12 men and 11 of 12 women said the former neurosurgeon isn't ready to be commander-in-chief.

"I think he's smart enough to do the job. I don't know if he's competent enough as a leader," said Tai.

Trump was largely dismissed as a "showman" and a "bully," although participants expressed some appreciation for his tough words on campaign finance reform.

He was frequently labeled as a "drunk uncle" who's tolerated at Thanksgiving but whose brash views aren't welcome in polite company.

Bush received some of the toughest reviews, with participants calling him "lost," "wishy-washy," "competent but colorless" and overly dependent on the coattails of his famous family.

Asked by moderators to describe his spine's material, participants named Jell-O, Styrofoam, and marshmallow -- a stark comparison to a chorus of "metal" and "steel" when the same question was asked about Clinton.

Still, there were bright spots for some of the lesser-known Republican candidates. Voters in both groups said they wanted to learn more about GOP candidates Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio, who both received relatively positive reviews despite being relatively unknown to these general election voters.

Of Rubio, Jim S., a 47 year-old swing voter said: "He seamlessly can put together a thought with a beginning, a middle and an end. I don't know how he does that every single time."