Beyond the Poll Numbers, Voter Doubts About Clinton

Polls show Sen. Hillary Clinton as the leading Democratic presidential choice.
Polls show Sen. Hillary Clinton as the leading Democratic presidential choice. (By Jay Laprete -- Bloomberg News)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

Anna Shelley, a mother of three from Utah, says she is ready for a female president, and she is sure that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has what it takes.

But Shelley, a Democrat, is not sure she could ever pull a lever for Clinton. Her reservations are vague but unmistakable: Something about Clinton leaves her cold.

"I want to see her as a human being -- I can read a newspaper and see her agenda," said Shelley, 27, whose husband did a tour in Iraq and who is appreciative of Clinton's support of the military.

"I think she's a little hard," she said. "She may be strong, but at the same time, if you're driven sometimes you're perceived as not having sympathy. And perception is reality for most of us."

It is a reality that Clinton's advisers are confronting as they seek to position the former first lady for a possible 2008 presidential run. They expect that any campaign would begin after this fall's election, in which Clinton, a Democrat, is running for a second Senate term from New York.

Never has a politician stepped onto a presidential stage before an audience of voters who already have so many strong and personal opinions about her, or amid arguments that revolve around the intangibles of personality and the ways people react to it.

Clinton's assets are formidable: an unrivaled ability to generate publicity and money, and approval ratings that are notably strong, given her polarizing reputation and the controversies she has weathered over 15 years in the national eye. In recent public opinion polls, she handily leads potential Democratic rivals.

Beneath these positives, however, there is evidence of unease -- about her personal history, demeanor and motives -- among the very Democratic and independent voters she would need to win the presidency.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll highlighted the paradox. Fifty-four percent of those responding view her favorably, and a significant majority give her high marks for leadership (68 percent), strong family values (65 percent), and being open and friendly (58 percent). At the same time, only 37 percent of Democrats in the poll say they would definitely vote for her for president.

A Gallup poll from last summer also highlighted a perception that she is too divisive, with 53 percent of respondents saying they do not view her as someone who would "unite the country and not divide it."

Follow-up interviews with skeptical Democrats and independents who participated in the Post-ABC News poll suggest that many view her as an inscrutable public figure who gets high marks for her ability and intellect but who nonetheless gives them pause because they find it difficult to relate to her on a personal level.

"The reason I am not able to say I am strongly supportive of her is because -- and this is just vibes -- she does not project a sense of what is inside of her like her husband did," said Sam Hack, 59, a self-described liberal Democrat from St. Louis.

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