The War She Hasn't Won

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

CONCORD, N.H. -- Monique Cesna seemed ready to toss a softball to Hillary Clinton. "I have to say, 'You go, girl!" Cesna said, and the capacity crowd in the high school gym here went wild.

But Cesna, 47, a nurse turned third-year law student, then bore down for the cross-examination: Candidate Clinton insists she wouldn't have taken the country to war in Iraq had she been president, yet Senator Clinton voted to authorize President Bush to go to war.

"How can you then explain the seeming contradiction?" she asked -- and again the crowd went wild.

Iraq was the throbbing toothache of Clinton's weekend visit here. The state she once took pains to avoid for fear of igniting presidential rumors -- she hadn't been here since 1996 -- will be key to her ambition to become the second President Clinton. But here and in Iowa, she faces a ferociously antiwar electorate unhappy with her positions, past and present, on Iraq.

On the eve of the primary three years ago, New Hampshire voters fixated on electability: They weren't so much swept away by John F. Kerry as calculating that he had the best shot of winning. Their hearts may have been with Howard Dean and his antiwar stance, but their heads were with Kerry and his pragmatic pitch: "Don't just send them a message. Send them a president."

Today, the mood feels different -- whether it's because that electability strategy didn't work out so well; that Bush will be out no matter what; that Democrats seem favored to win in 2008; that Iraq is more of a disaster; or that the primary is far enough away that voters can vent now and strategize later.

For the moment, Democratic primary voters don't want Kerryesque parsing. "Let the conversation begin," Clinton's banners proclaim, but she's not saying what many of them want to hear -- words like "mistake" and "sorry."

Instead, in the Clintonian formulation, the mistake was Bush's and the regret is that he misused the authority he was given. Iraq "is a gnawing, painful sore," she said. "People are beside themselves with frustration, and I understand that completely."

But people in that agitated state don't want to hear about the 60 votes required to proceed to Senate debate on a nonbinding resolution. "I know that is hard medicine for some people, because people say, 'Just do something,' " Clinton acknowledged.

Yet while Iraq was an undoubted irritant, it was also clear that Clinton is a formidable candidate. She leads in the polls and drew overflow crowds. If Barack Obama is the new rock star of the Democratic Party, Clinton is its Mick Jagger (or, if that status is Bill Clinton's, at least its Keith Richards).

At every stop, Clinton took pains to preempt the can-a-woman-be-elected question -- "My response to that is we will never know until we try" -- but her gender seemed either to be a nonissue or, with women, an energizing plus.

Clinton did a good job mediating the tensions in her Woman Warrior message -- the conflict between the softer, cuddlier "Let's Chat" Hillary and the rip-their-heads-off "I'm in It to Win It" Hillary.

She was playful and self-deprecating in a way that has not always come naturally to her in public. In Concord, she invoked an old Girl Scout song but promised not to sing it. "You go to YouTube and you'll know why," she said, referring to her less-than-Grammy-caliber national anthem performance.

"Don't look," she teased as she flipped up the back of her jacket to fiddle with her body mike. One difference between 2008 and 1992 will be "not so many Dunkin' Donut stops," she vowed. "I can't afford that, so I'm going to really need a lot of monitors in the room."

But if Clinton presented herself as another regular gal watching her weight, she also wielded her tough and confident political veteran persona. Obama, launching his presidential campaign the same weekend, acknowledged "a certain presumptuousness" in running. Clinton displayed no such diffidence, referring repeatedly to "when I'm president."

Asked how she'd stand up to GOP campaign tactics, she replied, "I'm the one person they're most afraid of because Bill and I know how to beat them and we have consistently."

As it turned out, Clinton's performance helped her with one struggling voter: Cesna, the Franklin Pierce law student. Cesna, whose Marine son is headed to Iraq, wasn't entirely satisfied with Clinton's stance on the war.

But Clinton in person seemed "much more inspirational and much more genuine," Cesna said, complimenting her willingness to stay more than an hour after the meeting, answering questions and posing for pictures. "She's willing to do her job to meet people in the state and maybe dispel some of the coldness and harshness that people feel about her."

In other words, campaigning in person Clinton can win over skeptics. But her nuanced position on the war, at a time when base voters are impatient with nuance, means laying off the doughnuts isn't going to be her biggest challenge here.

marcusr@washpost.com

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