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Beyond the Poll Numbers, Voter Doubts About Clinton

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006; A01

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.

Others said they see a persona too calibrated. "There's no question she's competent and very intelligent, but people want to see authentic human beings, and she has overly managed herself," said Peter Brooks, 68, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and a liberal Democrat who has an unfavorable view of Clinton.

Some Clinton advisers acknowledge these doubts and say they can be diffused if she runs by reintroducing her values and biography to a national electorate. They maintain that negative opinions often reflect misperceptions about her. Paid media and free media would give her opportunities to reacquaint herself with voters (she hasn't appeared on a Sunday talk show in more than a year). And the enormous popularity of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, is also part of the equation, some said.

"Many know of her but don't know her -- so the more they get to know her directly, the more they learn that what she does and what she stands for is what they are looking for," said Mark Penn, a longtime adviser and pollster for both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton.

Still, supporters say the powerful scrutiny she faces means that, far more than the typical politician, she has little room for public error or spontaneity, since even casual comments often draw national headlines. In addition, some political analysts believe that politicians who are women must work harder to be perceived as strong and serious.

Finally, those who have worked with her say that, unlike her husband, who easily conveys empathy and familiarity, Clinton is instinctively more reserved and harder to get to know.

The result is a public portrait of Clinton as highly self-contained. In an era when images of politicians biking or jogging are used to give them another dimension, she is rarely seen doing anything personally revealing.

Rhodes Cook, an independent political consultant who studies voting trends, maintains that, for the most part, "voters do have to find some kind of connection with candidates personally."

"All things being equal, style trumps substance in many ways," he said.

The hope among her advisers is that she can do nationally what she did in New York in 2000. Then, she faced questions about why she was running in a state where she had never previously lived, and whether she was interested in the job solely as a springboard to the presidency. Clinton also faced more piercing questions -- including from many women -- about the state of her marriage in the wake of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Was she staying with her husband simply for politics?

She quieted the doubts through relentless public appearances, old-fashioned retail politics on main streets and at local fairs, and paid advertising.

She eventually won with 55 percent of the vote, including what exit polls showed was 60 percent of female voters. These days, according to the Post-ABC News poll, 59 percent of women nationally have a favorable view of her, and among 18-to-35-year-old women, a notable 73 percent view her favorably. The flip side is that men are significantly more likely to say they would not vote for her.

Brian Tripplett, 47, a Democrat and a United Parcel Service manager from Kentucky, says he has a strongly unfavorable view of Clinton based on impressions 15 years old. "It seems that her public image is different from her private image. It bothered me when I read she was verbally abusive to employees," he said.

Valerie Herzig, 42, an independent from California who leans Democratic, said in the survey that she has an unfavorable view of Clinton, largely because she doesn't have a feel for her. "You hear a lot about her, but you don't hear from her," Herzig said in an interview. "My impression when she was 'Mrs. Clinton' was that she was the driver in the family. . . . But I have no idea what she's been doing for the past five years."

The intense curiosity about Clinton -- as well as the challenge she faces in supplying politically salable answers -- is not new. In her Arkansas and White House years, she at times eschewed the traditional images of the political wife, initially not taking the Clinton name, pursuing her legal career and, on the campaign trail in 1992, offending some with remarks that they interpreted as disparaging to women who stay at home and bake cookies.

At the same time, her fame and influence were derived from her marriage, causing some to question her motives when she lashed out at Bill Clinton's accusers and stayed with him through a public acknowledgment of infidelity.

The public has long been conflicted about her, softening during her most vulnerable periods. She was widely reviled for her efforts to reform health care in 1995, yet embraced a few years later during the Lewinsky scandal.

Even her physical appearance was long unsettled. First ladies generally show up at the White House with a dependable style, but Clinton routinely changed hers. Only in recent years has she put forth a fairly reliable professional look, almost always wearing pantsuits and keeping her hair short and blond.

But some voters wonder what is behind this controlled persona. "I was just talking to my friends about this," said Jeny Guy, 55, a registered independent from Falls Church, who expressed a "favorable" view of Clinton but said she would not vote for her. "I find her too stiff and packaged."

"I guess she would do a good job, but I just don't think she can get the votes," said Julie Troy of Michigan, who describes herself as an independent and a liberal but says she definitely would not vote for Clinton. "I find that men don't like her and that's a problem. . . . I don't think we're ready for her."

Those close to her say that she is engaging, kind and funny among friends but that she opens the door to just a handful of intimates who have a long history with her.

"She will define herself, and we will have the money to do it," said one close adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Clinton has forbidden those close to her to speculate publicly about 2008. "People have to get to know her, know that she was once a Republican, that she's a big Methodist. . . . That will happen."

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company