Clinton tries to make a second first impression
HANOVER, N.H. – In Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s relentless mission to convert her doubters, every grasp of the microphone, every empathetic nod, every studied recitation of fact matters. In the span of an hour’s town hall meeting, an assured performance can bring a few more skeptics into the fold.Onstage in a darkened Dartmouth University hall in June to tout her credentials on the issue of stem-cell research, Clinton slipped easily into talk-show host mode, breezily orchestrating doctors, panelists and an audience of New Hampshire voters through a session aimed at promoting her as a champion for the cause. By the time it was over, Clinton’s agile turn had moved several Democrats closer to her column.”I came in concerned about her reputation for not compromising,” said Tom Jacobs, who drove over from the neighboring town of Lebanon with his wife, Robyn, a gynecologist, and their two sons. “I walked out thrilled.”Robyn Jacobs emerged less certain. Clinton, she said, had seemed “stiff” in her prepared remarks. “I wouldn’t be unhappy if she’s the nominee, but I haven’t done due diligence on the other candidates yet.”For Clinton, convincing doubters among Democratic primary voters is essential for her presidential hopes. Saddled with high unfavorable ratings in national polls despite her perch atop her primary rivals and her steadiness over three debates, Clinton must change enough hearts and minds among Democratic voters to prove that she can do it on a nationwide scale during the 2008 election.To that end, the Clinton campaign is deep into a concerted, poll-tested effort to sway the public conversation about her in the primary states where it matters most, portraying her as Midwestern family woman and accomplished national leader instead of the lightning rod for ceaseless political warfare.Clinton’s carefully polished appearances on the campaign trail and her early reliance on biographical videos and networks of female supporters are all part of a larger strategy battle-tested in upstate New York during two winning Senate campaigns. The aim is to cut against the grain of the known Hillary Clinton, recasting her stereotyped reputation for polarizing harshness and political calculation, aiming at voters who are dubious about her but are not partisan enemies.”Our experience in the Senate races was instructive,” said Clinton’s campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, a key adviser during the earlier races. “There was the same conventional wisdom that it would be difficult for her to change opinions. And she did it.”During focus group sessions early in Clinton’s first Senate race in June 2000, psychologists hired by Clinton’s campaign were startled by the intense anger aroused by Clinton among middle-age and older suburban female voters. “She was like a Rorschach test,” recalled clinical psychologist and writer Shira Nayman, one of the analysts who oversaw the sessions. “These women were projecting their own internal issues on her.”Clinton ended up outpacing her GOP opponent, former Rep. Rick Lazio, among women voters by the end of that campaign by 20 percentage points.But unlike Clinton’s tailored targeting of New York’s upstate women, she now must mine converts among a broader, unwieldy primary mix of Democrats and even independents stretching from New Hampshire to Nevada. Tougher still, she faces the numerical wall of her own high negatives.Clinton has the highest unfavorable ratings of any Democratic candidate – both among surveys of potential general election voters and in polling among her own party’s likely voters. Even as she has solidified her standing in the Democratic race, her unfavorable ratings in recent national polls have teetered in the mid-40 percent to low-50 percent range among likely general election voters.In a mid-April Gallup/USA Today Poll, Clinton was rated favorable by 45 percent of American respondents and unlikable by 52 percent. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John Edwards fared better, with 52 percent favorable ratings – and with only 27 percent unfavorable for Obama and 31 percent for Edwards. Clinton’s standing improved in May, when the same polling organization found her favorability rose to 53 percent and unfavorable dropped to 45 percent. But in June, Clinton’s numbers reversed as 46 percent declared their approval and 50 percent found her unfavorable.”It’s very hard to make a second first impression,” Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart said. “That’s where she is right now.”Democrats are kinder to Clinton. The same April Gallup/USA Today poll showed Clinton with nearly identical favorable ratings to Obama and Edwards – in the high 60th percentile of Democrats. But while her two rivals had unfavorable ratings in the mid-teens – 17 percent for Obama and 14 percent for Edwards – Clinton’s disapproval measure stood at 28 percent.(Begin optional trim)Hart, who works with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse for the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, notes that the national divide over Clinton as a candidate emerged as early as 1999, as she first moved toward running for the New York Senate seat. That year, Hart’s polling found Clinton admired by 42 percent of American voters and spurned by the same percentage.”It’s not that the American public is suddenly looking at her afresh,” Hart said. “They’ve had her marked in their sights for a long time.”(End optional trim)If those divides hold, growing numbers of Democrats could begin to question her electability – a prospect raised by campaign veterans working for both of Clinton’s two main rivals, Obama and Edwards. Obama’s team notes that Clinton’s unfavorable ratings nationally remain higher than similar numbers for former Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry or Al Gore during their failed campaigns.”There’s still a lot that voters don’t know about Hillary,” counters Mark Penn, Clinton’s top pollster and strategist. “I always ask people where she’s born and most people don’t get that right.”Her suburban Chicago birthplace is one item among a carefully selected trove of biographical talking points that will be used to nudge fence-sitting Democrats toward a second look. Penn points to recent rises in Clinton poll numbers in New Hampshire and some national surveys as evidence of a reassessment kicking in.The Clinton campaign has salted bullet-points from Clinton’s biography into mailers and Web site promos, all aimed at recasting the New York senator’s image. It is a delicate task for her and her handlers – humanizing her edges without blurring the campaign’s simultaneous effort to portray her as a super-capable, seasoned centrist, an inevitable front-runner.Tucked into a mass e-mail fundraising appeal sent out last week by former President Clinton was one element of her campaign’s emphasis on biography – “the Hillary who turned down high-paying jobs out of law school to help children.”The use of Clinton’s “public service” is also a main thread of a Web video narrated by her husband that has been played by more than half a million viewers since its appearance on Clinton’s campaign Web site in June. The theme was echoed in a mid-June “urgentgram” sent out by EMILY’s List president Ellen R. Malcolm to the women’s fundraising group’s donor base.”Her biography has been out there but our supporters are well served by reminders of everything Hillary’s done for women and families,” said Ellen Moran, the group’s political director.Another well-worn thread is the New York senator’s reference to herself as heartland pragmatist, “born into a middle-class family in the middle of America.” The stump speech line is more than boilerplate – it was carefully tested in below-the-radar phone polling conducted with Democratic voters since April.Left-leaning activist bloggers and Democratic party officials in Iowa and New Hampshire have reported contacts from phone poll workers probing for opinions about the Clinton-as-Midwesterner theme in recent weeks.Wolfson and other Clinton campaign officials declined to detail their research methods. But one prominent Clinton supporter who asked not to be named because of proximity to the campaign confirmed the use of the polls and added that voters responded well to the Midwestern, middle-class themes.Biography also will be a strong feature in her coming wave of television ads, Clinton intimates said. A video team reporting to Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald filmed the candidate during a recent Iowa swing. Wolfson declined to say how the footage would be used or when it would run.In New Hampshire, phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and visits from the candidate herself have provided most of the campaign’s efforts to corral Democratic doubters.Tom Jacobs saw little evidence of presidential qualities in Clinton before he settled into his seat inside Alumni Hall on the Dartmouth campus in Hanover. The New York senator seemed “unyielding and stiff,” Jacobs said – qualities that made him feel she could not compromise in pushing for federal aid for stem-cell research.The issue is paramount for the Jacobses, whose 9-year-old son, Isaac, suffers from Type 2 diabetes. Robyn Jacobs, who formerly served as a physician in the U.S. Navy, came to the session less skeptical of Clinton than her husband. But the candidate’s stiff opening about “this very important issue” left Jacobs cold.When Clinton began taking questions from the audience, Jacobs perked up.”Suddenly I got to see what she was like thinking on her feet,” Jacobs explained. “It was the exact opposite of her speech. Her intelligence, her knowledge of the issues, the ability to synthesize complex issues in human terms – she sounded like she got it completely.”By the time the lights came on, the Jacobses had been moved. Tom Jacobs “was just about in her corner.” Robyn Jacobs was less certain, still insisting on “going to listen to the other candidates” in the coming months.”It’s too early to say she made the sale,” the doctor said. “But I like the merchandise.”
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