For the Clinton Candidacy, a Soft Launch

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007

NEW YORK, Jan. 21 -- One day after declaring for president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) gave her first public glimpse of how she will run: as the mother of a daughter, as a serious student of policy and as a two-term senator from New York.

With minimal staff, no family members and not even a sound system to amplify her remarks, Clinton appeared on Sunday at a colorless community clinic in Manhattan to announce a piece of health-care legislation, her first real outing since launching her presidential bid online. Despite a media crush that overwhelmed the participants, Clinton treated the event like a routine stop, acknowledging only during a question period at the end that she had finally decided to run.

"I am worried about the future of our country, and I want to help put it back on the right course, so that we can work together to meet the challenges that confront us at home and abroad in order to secure a better future for all," Clinton said when asked why she wants to be president, embracing the 2008 campaign after more than six years of frenzied speculation about her plans.

"I believe that I am in the best position to be able to do that," she said. And she repeated her latest mantra: "I'm in to win. And that's what I intend to do."

Instead of campaign rhetoric, Clinton focused on the specific theme of health care for children, locking hands with a little girl who joined her onstage. In so doing, she signaled that she will use her uniqueness as a woman -- and more specifically as a mother -- to stake out her ground in the crowded presidential field at a time when Democrats across the board are putting children at the center of their imagery and message.

Earlier this month, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a vivid impression by assuming the House speakership surrounded by a squadron of young grandchildren. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently questioned whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not having family of her own, could understand the stakes in Iraq.

In the past, such gestures have raised fears among some Democrats of being perceived as the "Mommy Party" -- a party of seemingly soft domestic issues such as child care and government entitlement programs, in contrast to a Republican Party that stood for national security. But focusing on children's health care was a consistent move for Clinton, who began her career working for the Children's Defense Fund, championed health care as first lady in the early 1990s and authored the book "It Takes a Village," about the way children are handled in society.

Using her first appearance as a candidate to present her domestic side -- rather than the tougher side she has displayed as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and on her recent trip to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq -- suggested that, at least initially, Clinton would like to strengthen her appeal to women, who make up a large part of both the electorate and the Democratic Party.

Even the location had meaning: The event was held at the Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center, named for the Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods whose needs it serves, and echoing the name of Clinton's daughter.

"We really are thrilled that this health center is named so appropriately," she said.

Chelsea Clinton, who now works for a hedge fund, played a minimal role in her mother's 2006 Senate reelection campaign, even skipping the state nominating convention because of a work conflict. Although she did not appear with her mother Sunday afternoon, campaign advisers have said they expect her to play a much more significant part in the presidential race, where there are already a number of photogenic children, including the young families of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.).

"If you're a mother or a grandmother, then you have an automatic connection with an enormous cross section of society," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who worked for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 but is not currently aligned with a candidate. "Women make up more than 51 percent of the voting electorate, and they show up at the polls more often than men. If you can authentically connect with them on a very personal level, then that's very important."

Arriving at Sunday's event more than half an hour later than planned, Clinton was, for all her understatedness, met with an explosion of flashbulbs and a crowd of bewildered families who had been invited to meet her.

Dozens of camera crews crammed the back of the overheated room. Japanese broadcasters did live shots from the crowd. Secret Service agents kept close watch as staff members corralled irritated photographers in a pen. Frantic members of the health center's staff tried to make room for the invited guests, who were pressed against the walls without seats. Small children squirmed and cried.

Two little girls, Olivia and Camilla Harden, were brought onstage as beneficiaries of the federal health-care system Clinton sought to promote. "You know, if there is any doubt in anyone's mind about why we need health insurance for every child, take a look at Camilla and her little sister Olivia," Clinton said, indicating the two playful girls.

Clinton announced that she and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) will sponsor legislation to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program to include more middle-class families. Invoking her daughter and husband, she said all parents should be able to give their children the comprehensive health care that she and Bill gave Chelsea.

Though it was her first appearance as a presidential candidate, the occasion was organized by her Senate staff and announced through her Senate office, suggesting that she will not run away from her perch but rather use it to her advantage. None of the numerous campaign staff members she has hired (not even Howard Wolfson, a New York-based consultant and a close adviser) was in evidence.

Nothing prohibits sitting lawmakers -- or presidents -- from campaigning in office, and taxpayer money can be used for travel and organizing as long as there is a reason related to their official duties.

If anything, Clinton seemed to be following the mold of her last Senate campaign, in which she worked methodically to raise money and build support. Throughout that campaign, which cost her more than $30 million to win 67 percent of New York, Clinton emphasized smaller appearances, especially upstate, appearing with groups of voters rather than at massive, flashy rallies.

Her event on Sunday felt like an extension of that campaign -- except for the context.

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