Sen. Clinton Seeks to Shore Up Left-Wing Support

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Thousands of political liberals are descending upon Washington, D.C., for their annual conference. The key speaker Tuesday is Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose relationship with the left wing of the Democratic Party has been called an unstable one.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Turning to politics in this country now, some 2,000 liberal activists were in Washington this week. They met to discuss strategy and listen to potential candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Among the speakers, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was both booed and cheered as she discussed her position on Iraq.

Clinton has more money and far more name recognition than the rest of the potential field, but she's been getting more and more flack from the left wing base of the Democratic Party. That group was once considered her strongest source of support.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

The ambience at this year's Take Back America Conference was a mixture of triumphalism and caution. The host, Robert Borosage, set the tone this way.

Mr. ROBERT BOROSAGE (Campaign for America's Future): I want to welcome you to this city. Many of you may think of it as occupied territory, but you've come at the right time. Tom DeLay left on Friday. Ken Lay and Jack Abramoff are headed to prison and George Bush has gone from swagger to sorry. It's our time.

LIASSON: But first, there was sobering news from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, whose presentation showed that all the bad numbers for Republicans have not been matched by good ones for Democrats.

Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner): We've watched their collapse, but we have not watched our rise. In fact, I thought it would be almost automatic that as they fell, that at least there'd be a turning to the alternative. Well, the data here doesn't support that.

LIASSON: The activists here are full of passion and anger at the Republicans, but also at their own Democratic leaders in Washington, who they call timid and gutless.

Mr. BOROSAGE: From the great state of New York, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: When the current frontrunner for the party's presidential nomination arrived to speak this morning, she got a mostly warm reception with a smattering of boos.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): As we go into these November elections, we have to take back the Congress in order to stop this administration and their unaccountable undermining of our constitutional democracy.

LIASSON: Clinton got a much cooler reception when she talked about the war in Iraq.

Senator CLINTON: I do not think it is a smart strategy, either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government. Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country.

(Soundbite of boos)

CROWD: Bring the troops home!

LIASSON: As she left the stage, the chanting began.

CROWD: Bring the troops home!

Mr. BOROSAGE: Thank you.

CROWD: Bring the troops home!

Mr. BOROSAGE: Thank you, Hillary Clinton.

CROWD: Bring the troops home!

Mr. BOROSAGE: Thank you for a courteous reception of our audience.

LIASSON: Although she's never disavowed her vote for the war, Clinton has become more and more critical of the administration's conduct. But that attempt at a nuanced position did not go over well with activists like Pat Elder.

Mr. PAT ELDER (Political Activist): I question why she's even at a conference like this. This is supposed to be for progressives. I don't see her as a progressive. Hillary, as you know, has been a steadfast supporter of the war while she has crisscrossed the country attempting to make liberal Democrats, in particular, believe otherwise.

LIASSON: Burt Cohen, a former Democratic state senator from New Hampshire, says the war will be an obstacle for Clinton with Democrats in his state.

Mr. BURT COHEN (Former State Senator, Democrat, New Hampshire): Among the primary voters in New Hampshire, people do really care a lot about getting out of Iraq and that's a problem for her. She didn't mention her, what seems to me, obvious pandering on the flag-burning amendment. I think people have a problem with that, too, as well.

LIASSON: Cohen said the party tried moving to the center in 2004 with John Kerry and lost. Could he support Clinton for the nomination in 2008? He says that's unlikely.

Mr. COHEN: I think she's trying to please all the people all the time and I don't think that works. I think we need to have an opposition party and I think people are hungry for a real clear alternative to the right, which has hijacked our government.

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton is seen as not liberal enough or authentic enough for many in this crowd of progressives. But there's also another line of thinking. Housing activist John Atlas is worried about what happens if she does get the nomination.

Mr. JOHN ATLAS (Housing activist): I don't think she can win the election because she will be forever viewed as too liberal for Middle America.

LIASSON: And just too controversial, say other Democrats, who worry about Republicans attempt to demonize her. Polls show there seems to be a stubborn ceiling to Clinton's national support. About a third of voters say they wouldn't vote for her under any circumstances. So is she too far to the left or not far enough? Too polarizing or too wishy-washy?

Hillary Clinton either has big problems from both the left wing base and the more cautious center of her party or she's positioned herself just right for the nomination and the general election. Senator Clinton and the Democrats have two and a half years to find the answers to those questions.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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