Chelsea Clinton Finds Her Voice

In just a few months on the campaign trail, Chelsea Clinton has learned to handle questions on issues from policy to scandal.
In just a few months on the campaign trail, Chelsea Clinton has learned to handle questions on issues from policy to scandal. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- With little fanfare the other day, Chelsea Clinton did what no one around her is ever supposed to do: She voluntarily brought up the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Speaking to a packed crowd of college students and recounting her mother's history of working with Republicans, the youngest Clinton talked for a minute about Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who as a House member during the impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton was "one of the people who prosecuted my father in the 1990s," she said. Not "someone you would think would be an ally for someone with the last name Clinton," the 28-year-old added wryly.

Nor someone her audience would expect her to mention. But if her self-assurance was a surprise, it was also part of a rapid evolution by Clinton, who has gone from a behind-the-scenes supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to her mother's most effective surrogate, capable of engaging in detailed policy discussions as well as explaining how the senator from New York "misspoke" in describing landing once in Bosnia under sniper fire.

She bristled the first time she was questioned about Lewinsky, telling a college student last month, "I do not think that is any of your business." But since then she has learned to handle even that subject, refining her answer every time it has come up. "If that's what you want to vote on, that's what you should vote on," she said when asked about the impeachment during an appearance at Purdue University on Monday.

In light of a string of setbacks for her mother's campaign, including impolitic remarks by her father, Chelsea is arguably the most seamless part of the struggling Clinton operation. After spending the first year of the presidential campaign watching quietly from New York, and after a lifetime of relatively little public exposure, she now maintains a schedule of public appearances to rival her parents' -- an event at Villanova University on Thursday will be her 100th college campus appearance.

The once and perhaps future first daughter is branching out in ways that the Clinton campaign -- which practically had to beg the candidate to allow her to appear in Iowa late last year -- never imagined. She regularly calls donors to thank them for contributions, an important task usually reserved for her parents; she records automated telephone calls to voters; and this week she posted a "welcome note" on her Facebook page, launching her first real effort to use the networking Web site on her mother's behalf.

"Please check in to see when I will be in your area," it reads. "My event info should be posted on my page going forward. I would also love your help in building my Facebook network, so please suggest me as a friend to all of your friends!"

Yet a certain tension persists between the high school and college student of the 1990s, whose private life was zealously guarded while her father was president, and the accomplished professional woman courting publicity and playing a familiar role in American politics: enhancing a candidate's image as a parent and an embodiment of family values.

Clinton has declined interviews; only a few authorized insiders are allowed to talk about her; she is even shielded by her mother at difficult moments as the campaign has tried to use her wattage to attract votes without exposing her to the rigors, such as talking with the news media, that most adult public figures expect. That has produced some hostility between her and reporters, and led to criticism that she is trying to have it both ways.

Tagg Romney, who with his four brothers played a prominent role in the unsuccessful campaign of their father, Mitt Romney, recalled that when his father was entering the Republican race, outside advisers warned the grown children: "If your dad is going to run, you're the collateral damage." He thinks a certain amount of scrutiny is inevitable.

"I don't know if it's fair to go deep into candidates' children's personal lives, because I'm not sure that really affects the way the candidate makes decisions," said Romney, 37. "But if you're willing to put yourself out there, then you need to be able to answer questions."

In public, Clinton displays her mother's memory, wit and mannerisms -- and can look and act so much like her that audience members frequently call her "Hillary." Privately, she shows the same sharp instincts as her father and the same seemingly inexhaustible capacity for campaigning.

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