By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006
DES MOINES, Oct. 15 -- Former president Bill Clinton entered the Hy-Vee Hall here on Saturday night like an aging rock star, striding up a red carpet, wearing a big smile, his arms outstretched to touch the hands of Democratic admirers lined up along his walkway to the stage.
Clinton came to rally Democrats three weeks before critical midterm elections. But his visit may have served another purpose as well. Alone among prospective Democratic presidential candidates for 2008, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has not set foot in the state all year, and the futures market in Clinton political stock here has been suffering.
Early polls by the Des Moines Register have shown former North Carolina senator John Edwards, the Democrats' 2004 vice presidential nominee, to be more popular among Democratic activists than the New York senator. A more recent survey of Iowans showed her running weaker than Edwards, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) in a series of hypothetical general election matchups against prospective Republican candidates.
The senator's political advisers dismiss those numbers and perhaps for good reason. Clinton has chosen to focus on her own reelection in New York, they note, and so has not spent time in a state where voters insist on getting to know the candidates before they make a commitment to support them. If she decides to run, say her advisers, attitudes will change.
But Iowa Democrats said Clinton's standing reflects more than her absence. They say there is general unease within the party about her ability to win a general election. Beyond that, some Democrats are troubled by her support for the war in Iraq long after other Democratic politicians such as Kerry and Edwards had renounced their votes for the congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to launch the invasion.
Attitudes in Iowa are important in part because the state holds the opening caucuses of the nomination battle every four years. But Iowa also is a small but significant Midwestern swing state, one that swung to the Republicans in 2004. Any Democrat running for president will need to convince voters that he or she can win Iowa.
"I think Hillary's got a problem with just about everybody with that under-the-radar thing of 'she can't win,' " said Rob Tully, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman, and as one of Edwards's leading supporters, someone with his own biases. "That's something she's going to have to get over if she gets in. She knows that. She's an articulate, astute politician."
Antiwar sentiment has always run deep among Democratic activists in Iowa, which was why former Vermont governor Howard Dean found traction for his long-shot presidential candidacy in the opening of the 2004 nomination battle before his campaign collapsed in the weeks just before the caucuses.
If she runs, Clinton will meet skepticism or hostility among many of these antiwar Democrats. "The problem I have with Hillary is she voted for the Iraq war and did [support it] until a few months ago," said Bruce Stone, a liberal activist who attended Saturday's dinner.
Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register, said Clinton's problems go beyond the fact that she hasn't spent much time here recently. The problem is that many people already have an unfavorable opinion of her. "Her negatives are so negative," Selzer said in a phone interview.
It was Bill Clinton, during his first presidential campaign in 1992, who described the political partnership with his wife to voters as a buy-one, get-one-free deal. That still appears to be the case. He carries obvious political baggage, some of which his wife would inherit if she runs, but he is demonstrating that there are things he can do, small and large, that she cannot do for herself right now that could boost her candidacy.
The New York senator has avoided New Hampshire this year, like Iowa. Among other things, this has kept her out of the effort among New Hampshire Democrats to preserve their state's first-in-the-nation primary status, which the Democratic National Committee is challenging.
Every likely Democratic candidate save for Clinton has signed a letter to Gov. John Lynch (D) backing the state. But when the former president visited last summer, he offered a ringing endorsement of New Hampshire's traditional status at the front of the calendar and said his wife shared those views.
Many Democrats still look at Clinton as the party's most effective strategist and communicator, and on Saturday night he was applauded just for saying, "Here's what we [Democrats] ought to say," and used part of his 49-minute speech to road-test a message that will resonate long after next month's election.
He advised on how Democratic candidates should talk about national security and Iraq -- robustly but also critically of the administration. He outlined an ambitious domestic agenda: expanded health-care coverage, energy independence, fiscal responsibility, tax cuts for the middle class. He condemned what he described as the giveaways to big corporations, drug companies, corporate executives and the wealthiest Americans.
It was all in the guise of the midterm elections, but it could and likely will be taken right off the shelf with minimal modifications by Hillary Clinton, if she chooses to run. She already has on some of the issues he outlined.
Clinton joked that one of his main jobs these days is as the "chief caseworker for the junior senator of New York." But he is working in her behalf far beyond the borders of the Empire State and is reaching people she is not -- some of them more receptive to him than to her.
Asked before Clinton's speech what he thought of the former president, Stone brightened. "I think he walks on water, and the only way you'd get me to vote for Hillary is to tell me it's a package deal." She will decide how explicitly to make such an offer.