By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
MAYSVILLE, Ky., May 19
Women of all ages and nationalities push against the rope line carrying books and T-shirts, posters and stuffed animals -- anything for her to autograph. They tote huge signs that shout "Hillary Cares About Me"-- and they tearfully grab her hand to implore her to stick it out, to take her trailing campaign all the way to the Democratic convention in Denver.
They say they have come to show support for Hillary Clinton not merely because she is a woman or because her campaign is breaking historic ground, but because she speaks to them about their real problems and they are furious at the way she has been treated.
In an interview after church services in Bowling Green on Sunday, Clinton for the first time addressed what women have been talking about for months, what she refers to as the "sexist" treatment she has endured at the hands of the pundits, media and others. The lewd T-shirts. The man who shouted "Iron my shirt" at a campaign event. The references to her cleavage and her cackle.
"It's been deeply offensive to millions of women," Clinton said. "I believe this campaign has been a groundbreaker in a lot of ways. But it certainly has been challenging given some of the attitudes in the press, and I regret that, because I think it's been really not worthy of the seriousness of the campaign and the historical nature of the two candidacies we have here."
Later, when asked if she thinks this campaign has been racist, she says she does not. And she circles back to the sexism. "The manifestation of some of the sexism that has gone on in this campaign is somehow more respectable, or at least more accepted, and . . . there should be equal rejection of the sexism and the racism when it raises its ugly head," she said. "It does seem as though the press at least is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by the comments by people who are nothing but misogynists."
An energetic Clinton has stormed Kentucky's middle-class communities for the past four days, shoring up her support before Tuesday's primary, which she is expected to win overwhelmingly. She's attracting some of the biggest and most intense crowds she's seen in weeks, such as the 2,000 who attended her rally in Lexington on Monday night, where she was joined by her husband. And while there are plenty of men in the stands, it's the women who are most passionate.
And so as her Democratic opponent refers to her politely in the past tense, and the likely Republican presidential nominee simply ignores her, and the pundits snicker that she's delusional and should just step aside already, she is a woman definitely not preparing her remarks for a graceful exit anytime soon. And that's what her supporters want to hear.
"I'm real tired of the pundits telling me the race is over -- telling America what it should think," said Dorinda Perkins, 63, a lab technician. "I do not want her to quit."
"I love her because she's a helluva fighter. She's tenacious and I like that," said Pat Parker, a night-shift worker at Hardee's in Bowling Green. "She cares for everybody, for people like me. . . . I'll tell you, she's been treated pretty shabby."
Naila Alam and four of her Pakistani relatives -- all women and all voters -- drove from Virginia to Kentucky over the weekend to see if they could help the campaign. "Hillary: She is going to take care of women all over the world," Alam declared. "She is our best hope. She cares about protecting the family with good health care and lower gas prices."
Andrea Steagall, 20, also made a long trek, rising at 3:30 a.m. Monday to drive across the state to Maysville to catch Clinton's remarks. "My husband was deployed to Afghanistan, and I know she's all for making sure our veterans are taken care of," said the young woman, a cashier at a convenience store.
As she canvassed the state, Clinton seemed to be making an eleventh-hour pitch to audiences well beyond Kentucky. At stop after stop she made the case that she has a better chance of winning the general election because of her strength in larger urban states. She offered a new spin on the arithmetic, pointing out that the states she won would total 300 electoral votes in a general election.
If you didn't know from the delegate count that Clinton was trailing Barack Obama insurmountably and likely facing the end of her long race for president, you might think she was just warming up for a fight. She and her campaign seemed intent on stemming the inevitability of Obama's nomination.
She complained in the interview that the "intensity of my support" was rarely reported, adding, "I think that is a disservice because we have broad coalitions of voters who have voted for me who make up the base of a winning campaign in November that I think want to see this end up with my being nominated."
"We're going to give people in remaining states a chance to vote. We're going to resolve Michigan and Florida," she said.
Over the past few days, Clinton has looked rested and relaxed. No matter how the questions were asked, she resisted any entreaties to reflect on the campaign in a way that might suggest it's over. She let out a throaty laugh when asked in Sunday's interview if she could be put "on the couch" for a few minutes to talk about how she has grown through the campaign. But she quickly said she has been too focused on winning to think about that.
She made it clear at every stop that she has every intention of keeping her campaign going, raising questions about whether she will throw in the towel on June 3, the day of the last primaries, as some Democrats had hoped.
"This race is far from over!" she thundered defiantly to the several hundred die-hard supporters at the high school here in George Clooney's birthplace. "I'm going to make my case and I'm going to make it until there's a nominee, and we're not going to have one today and we're not going to have one tomorrow and we're not going to have one the next day."
Political observers, as well as those who know Clinton best, say she has become a far better candidate over the course of the campaign, and in particular over the past six weeks as she has become more comfortable and confident about her message. Early in her campaign, she was self-conscious about becoming the women's candidate, intent instead on suiting up as commander in chief.
"She has totally found her voice," said a longtime adviser, "but what is so frustrating for her is that there isn't enough runway to get anything done."
No one is quite sure when Clinton hit her stride, when she stopped caring about the polls, when she took her campaign to the people and gave voters a window into her soul.
She said she found her voice in New Hampshire, but then all we heard was Bill's. Some say it was when senior strategist Mark Penn was forced to leave the campaign; he did not put a premium on the personal side of politics. Or it could have simply been when she was losing and so had nothing to lose by being herself.
"The irony is that candidates often find their voices once the pressure is off," said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster and strategist. They are comfortable with "who they are and what they are. It comes at a point in the campaign when the candidate says this is what I want to say and this is who I am. For Hillary Clinton, as you stripped away all the varnish, the core person is the most attractive of all."