RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DON GONYEA, host:
And I'm Don Gonyea.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is cruising toward a second term in New York this fall. She also happens to be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. She's got a higher profile, stronger approval ratings, and an ability to raise money unmatched by any of her potential rivals. Polls consistently show her as the favorite of Democratic voters to reach the White House. But after 15 years in the public eye, she is also a polarizing figure, and that has sparked an intense debate among Democrats about whether she can win the presidency.
NPR's Mara Liasson has been following Senator Clinton's campaign, and has this report.
Unidentified Man: And now, I give you Senator Clinton.
(Soundbite of applause)
MARA LIASSON reporting:
On Monday in Cambria, New York, about 150 people packed into a sweltering metal shed on Donald Robinson's vegetable farm to hear Senator Clinton talk about revitalizing rural communities.
Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I have a lot of love for rural issues, and I have a speech that'll probably last till the first frost. So I hope you all are ready, because there's a lot that I want to say about…
LIASSON: For almost an hour, Clinton delivers a detailed speech about broadband access, alternative fuels, education, and agriculture policy. It's just one example of the meticulous attention she's been paying to heavily Republican Upstate New York. Her goal this year is to win as big a margin as possible upstate, thereby demonstrating what her strategists say is her potential to win votes in other Republican-leaning and rural areas across the country. Because Clinton has such weak Republican opposition this year, she's free to travel the country helping other Democrats raise money for the November elections, and laying the groundwork for her own presidential bid in 2008.
(Soundbite of song Let It Shine)
Sen. CLINTON: Good morning, ACORN!
LIASSON: In Ohio last month, Clinton attended the national convention of ACORN, an organization of low-income community activists.
CLINTON: We're going to need your help in these elections in November. Unless we take back one or both houses of Congress, we will not be able to stop the agenda of the right-wing Republicans - the Bush Republicans - in Washington.
LIASSON: The idea of Clinton as a presidential candidate may be controversial elsewhere, but not here. Not to Dorothy Flowers(ph), Shenka Gray(ph), and Lucille Puckett(ph).
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh. I - this is awesome. She is just so great. I can't find enough words to really describe.
Unidentified Woman #2: She's honest, she's up-front, and she's just real warm. And she understands where we're coming from. So I think that she'll make a great president of the United States.
Unidentified Woman #3: She just tell it like it is, and she don't cut no corners. Hillary for President, 2008. Run, Hillary!
LIASSON: Compare that to the way Senator Clinton was received in Washington, DC a few weeks earlier, when she spoke to a group of progressive Democrats, and mentioned her position on Iraq.
Sen. CLINTON: But I have to just say it. I do not think it is a smart strategy, either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, 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 booing and chanting)
LIASSON: The boos and the chants showed just how controversial Clinton's support of the war is for certain segments of the Democratic Party. But for every left-wing activist who feels Senator Clinton has moved too far to the center, there's another Democrat with a different set of worries.
In Scarsdale, New York, a Democratic stronghold just north of New York City, Rita Alexander is like many other voters. She badly wants a Democrat elected in 2008, but she doesn't want Clinton to be the candidate.
Ms. RITA ALEXANDER (Scarsdale, New York): Definitely not.
LIASSON: Can you tell me why?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I don't think this nation is willing to accept a woman. I think that's one of her biggest drawbacks. And I just don't think we're ready for it.
LIASSON: Attorney Jeffrey Streisfeld(ph) loves Mrs. Clinton as senator, but for president?
Mr. JEFFREY STREISFELD (Attorney): I don't think she can win, because there's a lot of anti-Hillary Clinton prejudice throughout the country. And New York is not representative of the rest of the country. And unfortunately - though I think she would do a good job because I think she's very smart and she's a hard worker - I don't think that is her perception throughout the rest of the country. I really think that she probably needs another term as senator.
LIASSON: Muriel and Milton Laziere(ph) have been married so long they finish each other's sentences. And they both answer the same way when asked if they approve of Clinton's performance.
Ms. MURIEL LAZIERE (New York Resident): Yes, as a senator. But I'm worried about her running for president, because I don't think this is the time. I'm so anxious to get rid of Bush and the Republicans, and I…
Mr. MILTON LAZIERE (New York Resident): She's a very able person, but we must be very careful here to make sure we get a Democrat that'll win.
Ms. LAZIERE: I don't know who that will be.
Mr. LAZIERE: Yeah, we don't have a…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARK PENN (Pollster): There's so much cocktail conversation. Can she win? Can she win? I just got frustrated.
LIASSON: Pollster Mark Penn is one of Hillary Clinton's strategists. He recently wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post called The Power of Hillary, in order to refute what he calls the Hillary can't win stuff. Although 42 percent of those surveyed in a recent Washington Post poll said they would never vote for her, Penn believes that's the number of people who will never vote for any Democrat.
Mr. PENN: I think it's really important to note that whatever preconceived notions people have of Hillary, they seem to change dramatically when they actually see her, know her, and see the kind of work she does.
LIASSON: But other Democrats wonder if Clinton can convince enough voters in red states across the country. After all, says Democratic strategist Elaine Kamarck, Clinton has had six years of intensive retail politics to improve her standing in upstate New York. And Kamarck wonders whether she can do that in the rest of the country in the few months between the end of the Democratic primaries in 2008 and the general election in November.
Ms. ELAINE KAMARCK (Democratic Strategist): People wonder if it's in fact physically possible to turn around the negative stereotypes in the whole country in a very short period of time. So the worry about Hillary's candidacy is that she comes with a great deal of baggage, much of it sort of concocted by the Republican character assassination machine, but that doesn't mean that you don't have to deal with it. And the question is can she in fact - in a presidential - manage to do what she has done with those upstate voters. And that's a question. People go back and forth on that within the party.
LIASSON: Mark Penn argues that Senator Clinton can and will win over her detractors, because he says she's tough enough to handle the viciousness of a national campaign, and therefore, the challenges of the presidency.
Mr. PENN: Sixty-eight percent on the last Washington Post poll said that Hillary Clinton is a strong leader. And I think that that's something that the Democratic Party in general needs more of in New York and elsewhere.
LIASSON: That Clinton is a Democrat with a backbone is the number one talking point of the Hillary camp. It showed up in the remarks of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who introduced Clinton last month at the Democratic Leadership Council meeting in Denver.
Governor JENNIFER GRANHOLM (Democrat, Michigan): I am pleased to introduce a woman with unbelievable spine. A great backbone of steel. A necessary part of a body for someone who will be going into a fight. We need strong fighters for us. Please welcome Senator Clinton.
(Soundbite of applause)
LIASSON: At the DLC convention, Clinton unveiled a package of centrist policy ideas she developed with the DLC's think tank.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We have the ideas, and we have the will. Now all we have to do is win elections, starting in November, by uniting the Democratic Party.
LIASSON: Winning the election in November should be easy for Senator Clinton. Convincing her party that she's the right person to win in 2008 might be a little more difficult.
Sen. CLINTON: Where are you from?
Unidentified Woman: Illinois.
Sen. CLINTON: Excellent. Where from Illinois?
LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
Sen. CLINTON: Yeah! I like that. That's a great story. Hi. How are you? Very good to see you. Thank you so much.
Unidentified Man: Senator, Angela Wasson-Hunt is my constituent.
Sen. CLINTON: Oh, you're kidding? Oh, my gosh, she's wonderful.
Unidentified Man #1: She's a good friend of mine. So I'll tell her I…
Sen. CLINTON: Say hello to her for me.
Unidentified Man #1: I will. Thank you.
Sen. CLINTON: Hey, Dan.
Unidentified Man #2: Hi. Senator, can you take a couple of questions?
(Soundbite of music)
GONYEA: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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