Mixed Reviews For Clinton In Iowa

Bob Bromely, with his wife, Ann, said Hillary Clinton
Bob Bromely, with his wife, Ann, said Hillary Clinton "dodged the issue" of the Iraq war during her Iowa visit. (Photos By Dan Balz -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Jan. 28 -- Lynda Waddington met Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton twice this weekend as the Democratic senator from New York made her initial campaign visit to the state with the nation's first presidential caucuses. Clinton, she said, is nothing like the politician she sees portrayed in the press.

"The media in particular has a bad habit of taking our candidates and giving them back to us in a caricature," said Waddington, an Iowa Democratic Party official and activist. "Al Gore was a bumbling elitist. With Hillary, they have her painted as a cold fish. That's absolutely what you do not get in person. She's very warm and very intelligent."

Kay Hale met Clinton for the first time at a house party in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night. "I just never really had a true opinion of her," said Hale, who calls herself a "granny nanny" and drives a school bus. "I didn't hate her. A lot of people hate her or they like her, and I am not that way. I found her to be very warm."

Based on those reactions, Clinton and her campaign advisers may justifiably conclude that she made a positive first impression on Iowa Democratic Party activists. But a 90-minute conversation with 14 Iowa Democrats here Sunday afternoon tells a more complete and not-so-encouraging story of her candidacy in its early stages.

Widely admired and seen as strong and intelligent, Clinton nonetheless engenders substantial doubts among people who, by virtue of Iowa's place at the front of the nominating calendar, could play an outsized role in selecting the next Democratic presidential nominee.

"Competent and capable, but she's my fourth choice," said Dale Hedgecoth, a carpenter at a local high school.

"Strong, but not it," added Dona Howe, a first-grade teacher.

The 14 party activists were invited by The Washington Post to come together to talk about the presidential race. All are currently uncommitted. Their views are in no way a scientific sample, but as voters who pay especially close attention to presidential politics, they offer clues to the future in their impressions.

At the end of the conversation, these activists were asked whether they are leaning toward any particular candidates. Six said they are totally uncommitted. Of the other eight, three mentioned Clinton as one of the candidates they are looking at with the most interest.

Their opinions underscored what polls and strategists are saying: The Democratic race in Iowa is wide open. There is great interest in Illinois Sen. Barack Obama but many questions about whether he is ready to be president. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina is well known to Iowa activists, but for someone leading the polls here he evoked a curiously unenthusiastic reaction among many in the group. Other candidates sparked limited interest, although there were kind words for former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

Clinton began her campaign a week ago as the national front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but in Iowa she remains a candidate with question marks behind her name. Iowa activists like to poke and probe the candidates. They have not had a chance to do that with Clinton, and it shows.

The fact that she could be the first woman elected president sparks a strong reaction among many women and some men. "This gender thing is an artificial distraction," said Dave Langston, a project manager whose wife is in elective office.

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