Through the early months of the Democratic campaign for president, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has consistently led her rivals in the polls. She has earned her front-runner status by raising more money, collecting more endorsements, and dominating the two Democratic debates.
But Clinton has also begun systematically addressing her vulnerabilities, showing how the trials of her public life have made her tough and resilient. She is even trying out a little humor.
This winter, the Clinton campaign sometimes seemed rattled by the phenomenal rise of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. But now her campaign is confident enough to begin attacking her own weaknesses instead of those of her rivals. Task No. 1: Clinton's image.
As Clinton told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, "You may think you know about me, but I may be the most famous person you know very little about."
Hillary's Humorous Side
What many people think they know about Clinton is that she's tough, smart and hardworking — but also ambitious, calculating or overly scripted. Her advisers say that's not the real Clinton, and they're looking for ways to highlight other parts of her personality.
At town meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton can come off as warm and engaging. She has been reminding audiences that she was raised in the Midwest by, as she puts it, "a middle-class family in the middle of America in the middle of the last century."
At a recent forum on faith and politics sponsored by a liberal evangelical group, she was self-deprecating — and funny. When asked what she asks God for, Clinton said, to much laughter, "You know, sometimes I say, 'Oh, Lord. Why can't you help me lose weight?"
Recently, Clinton opened herself up to the free-for-all world of the Internet when she started an online contest to choose her campaign song. Then she made a video that included a sampling of the less-than-favorable reactions to the contest that were posted on YouTube. That second video has been viewed more than a quarter-million times. (Watch it here.)
"Clinton is doing everything in her power to be down to earth and to connect with people," says Don Van Natta, co-author of Her Way, one of several recently published books about Clinton. "Her strategists say she has to do that. She has this image of being brittle and aloof and a tough nut to crack. And this song contest is really an attempt to have some fun with the campaign."
Getting to Know the Candidate
Mandy Grunwald has been the Clintons' media consultant since 1992. That year, she produced the "Man from Hope" video that re-introduced Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Now she is handling all of the media for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Grunwald says the Clinton campaign is doing what all campaigns do: trying to deepen voters' understanding of their candidate.
"I think the fundamental message of our campaign is that we think America is ready for change," Grunwald says, "that Hillary is the one ready to lead, and that [that] has to do with having the kind of experience she has to start solving problems from day one. But you know, who you are is also important, not just what you'll do. Those people who know Sen. Clinton well know she has a great sense of humor."
Grunwald has her work cut out for her. Although Clinton has consistently led polls of Democrats nationally and in all the early primary states except Iowa, she still has the highest negatives of anyone running for president.
She is also polarizing. Polls show roughly the same number of people view Clinton favorably as unfavorably, and hardly anyone has no opinion. So while other candidates have to fill in a blank slate, Hillary Clinton has to go out and change minds.
The Iraq Issue
And Clinton still has her 2002 Iraq war vote to deal with — although as Van Natta points out, Clinton has moved steadily to the left on the war, solving some of the problems she had with the activist base of her party.
"She has, on the Iraq vote, successfully put herself in a place where she says, 'It's George W. Bush's war, not my war.' So people won't talk about her 2002 war authorization," van Natta says. "She only wants to talk about her current position."
Clinton's current position, of course, is that that she will end the war as her first act as American president in January 2009.
Van Natta's book calls attention to one aspect of Clinton's justification for her war vote that received little attention at the time.
During the Senate debate in October 2002, Clinton said, "The facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt. In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile-delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members."
Clinton added that there is "apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of Sept. 11," but she went further than any other Democrat to echo the Bush administration's suggestion of a link between Saddam and al-Qaida.
But this has not become an issue for Clinton on the campaign trail. No other candidate has raised it. And that is an indication that the presidential candidate who has weathered more attacks than any other may — for the moment — finally be getting a free pass.