Some Say Clinton Model Is Flawed
Sunday, October 21, 2007
JAVA, N.Y. -- Doug Merlau always leaned Republican, but that was before Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton came to talk about the mystery of the tainted milk.
The state's junior Democratic senator seemed "genuine about wanting to help" when she met with Merlau and 10 other dairy farmers in 2002 about the antibiotics showing up in milk from this part of western New York, Merlau recalled recently during a break on his 325-acre farm. The cause of the contamination was never discovered, but it did not recur. Merlau repaid Clinton by voting for her reelection last year, helping her win the vast, largely rural and -- compared to the rest of New York -- conservative area known simply as Upstate.
Now, running for president, Clinton is invoking the inroads she has made Upstate as a kind of talisman against worries in her own party that she is too polarizing to win next fall. If she can appeal to Republicans in Cattaraugus and Boonville, her campaign argues, her electability -- and her ability to unite the country -- are undeniable.
But seen from ground level in this swath of rolling farmland and small towns between Buffalo and Rochester, it is unclear whether that argument holds up.
Merlau, when asked if he and his neighbors would vote for her for president next fall, responded, "There are more people that like her" now than when she first came to New York, "but you still hear people say, 'I don't know if I want her to be president.' "
In Clinton's seven-year career in elected office, Upstate New York was her biggest political test. When she arrived from Washington in 1999, she was the wife of the president who had barely escaped a scandal that had focused attention on their marriage, and she had no real connections to the state and no experience running herself. Many people Upstate regarded her as a carpetbagger.
Clinton has won over many such critics, but often through federal grants and constituent service, tools she cannot rely on in a presidential campaign. Her reelection last year, when she won 61 percent of the Upstate vote, came against a weak candidate. And the region is by some measures more moderate than parts of key swing states such as Ohio and Florida -- Republicans barely outnumber Democrats (who are clustered in Upstate's cities), and there are few religious conservatives.
"I don't think the fact that she knocks them dead in Oneonta means that she's going to do it in Massillon," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, referring to towns in New York and Ohio, respectively.
Finally, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Upstate is not exactly Clinton country. There are voters who voice admiration for her, but there are many others who are ambivalent -- and some who reject her with a vehemence that seems to startle even themselves.
Take the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon this month in Batavia, a town of 16,000. While GOP-leaning, the chamber is not necessarily enemy territory for Democrats. Clinton addressed it in 2004, and attendees last week spoke highly of her fellow New York Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who has spent even more time Upstate than Clinton. But kind words for Clinton were scarce.
"I don't like her. I don't think she's honest," said Jim Morelli, a construction equipment salesman.
"I'm not a fan at all. She shifts a lot of her policies depending on what the question is," said Wendy Leffler, a development officer with a hospice care agency. "I don't feel her values are consistent."