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.
But even those who want to see a woman elected to the White House worry that Clinton may not be able to win a general election, given her political baggage. "I think that it would be amazing to have her be our president," said Hollyanne Howe, a high school student. "I fear that if she is nominated, she won't be electable. I would love to see her get elected, but my biggest fear is that it won't happen and we'll get stuck with another President Bush or whomever else."
Most of those in the group strongly oppose the Iraq war, and Clinton's 2002 vote authorizing Bush to go to war rankles many. Several said they want to hear fuller explanations from her about why she voted the way she did and how she would try to end the war and bring the troops home.
"Having read all the press accounts" about her opening day in Iowa, "I still don't know what she's going to do," said Roy Porterfield, an unemployed automotive manager.
"She dodged the issue," said Bob Bromley, a retired clergyman.
"That's what concerns me," Porterfield responded. "Is there any single greater issue than the war? She better offer a solution to that real quick."
Clinton attempted to do just that on Sunday morning during a town hall meeting in Davenport, with a scathing attack on Bush and a detailed description of where she stands. But based on the reactions of the 14 Democrats, who gathered at Crosby's restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids, it will take repeated visits to get that explanation across to activists in a party with a long antiwar tradition.
Around the table, Obama evoked some of the most effusive responses, with repeated use of the word "charismatic." But the group was decidedly split about whether he is ready to be president.
Joe Stutler, a systems analyst, said that "the C-word, 'charismatic' " describes his view of Obama but that the senator reminds him of a rock star coming off the release of a double-platinum album. "Is the first album the one and only?" he asked. "Is he a one-hit wonder? I can see him as vice president now."
But Liz Belden, a retired educator, said Obama is just what the country needs. "In my estimation, he is a gem, he's one in a million, and he does have the experience, if you read his books," she said. "I would like to see a mind like that go to Washington, D.C."
Edwards has been to Iowa 17 times in the past two years and leads many of the early polls in the state. Seen as personable, bright and compassionate by these activists, he nonetheless left them struggling to explain why they had doubts about him as a potential president.
"I really like Edwards," said Ann Bromley, a retired city worker. "I think he's intelligent and compassionate. I don't think he's electable, and I don't know why. Something is missing." Others nodded in agreement.