Clinton Begins Her Run In Earnest

By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 28, 2007

DES MOINES, Jan. 27 -- Bursting onto the campaign trail for the first time here on Saturday, Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton quickly confronted two looming questions about her presidential candidacy: whether voters are ready to elect a woman to the White House and how aggressively she would respond to Republican attacks if she were her party's nominee.

Clinton held her first major public event a week after entering the 2008 campaign. It was a glossy, town-hall-style "conversation" with Iowans at a high school here in Des Moines, and it came nearly a full year before the state's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, scheduled for next January.

In an auditorium packed with more than 1,000 people -- many of them women -- Clinton stood alone at center stage, her arms outstretched, as she encouraged Iowans to help her win the presidency. "I'm running for president, and I'm in it to win it," she said to a burst of applause.

But the first question put to her focused on whether she, as a woman, would have extra difficulty winning.

Clinton conceded that there may be special obstacles for any female candidate. "I think you've got to move beyond that," she said. "I am going to be asking people to vote for me based on my entire life experience. The fact that I'm a woman, the fact that I'm a mom, is part of who I am. But I'm going to ask people to vote for the person they believe would be the best president of the United States."

Clinton got just one question about Iraq, and she deflected it without answering it, speaking instead about health care for veterans.

But at a morning session with Iowa Democratic Party officials, she was asked to address her vote for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war. That vote, along with her reluctance until late last year to recant, has put her at odds with many antiwar activists in the party and is expected to be a factor as she begins to meet voters in a state with a strong antiwar tradition.

"I've taken responsibility for my vote," she said. "But there are no do-overs in life. I wish there were. I acted on the best judgment I had at the time." She closed by noting: "I may have a slightly different take on this than some of the people who come through here."

The questions at the town hall meeting were uniformly polite and often adulatory. But her appearance among party officials brought out concerns that have echoed for months among party insiders nationally, all related to whether she may be such a polarizing figure that she will have a difficult time getting elected.

Clinton acknowledged that the campaign ahead might become brutal, particularly if she is picked as the Democratic nominee. She noted that she had overcome doubters who had predicted that she could not win a Senate seat in New York. And in response to a question about the lessons she has learned from Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's loss to President Bush in 2004, Clinton promised to respond aggressively when attacked.

"When you're attacked, you have to deck your opponents," she said, after a more tepid initial response. She added: "I want to run a positive, issue-oriented, visionary campaign. But you can count on me to stand my ground and fight back."

Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, based on national polls of Democrats, her capacity to raise as much or more money than any of her rivals, and the extensive network of loyalists built up during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton. But in Iowa, she is just one of four candidates currently viewed as the strongest contenders.

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