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Negative Perceptions Dogging Clinton Among Voters in Iowa

(Dan Balz - The Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Long before the 2008 campaign began, Liz Belden thought she would support Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). As a feminist, she believed it would be good for the country to finally elect a woman as president.

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Today, she supports Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), impressed by his intellect and what she believes is his capacity to unite the country. "I want a woman president who is the right person. I'm not convinced this one is," Belden said. "My problem with her is, too many times I feel she says things for political expediency."

As Belden spoke, others around the table in a coffee shop here nodded in agreement. Their reactions to the candidate who leads the race for the Democratic presidential nomination nationally offered some insight into why Clinton is in a competitive race in Iowa, whose first-in-the-nation caucuses will begin the nominating contest next year.

Eight months ago, when Clinton made her first trip to Iowa as a candidate, The Washington Post -- with the help of Linn County Democratic Party Chairman Mike Robinson -- gathered 14 Iowa activists and county party leaders for a conversation about the New York senator and her rivals. At the time, all said they were uncommitted, but even then their coolness toward Clinton was evident.

On Friday night, 10 of the 14 returned for another 90 minutes of conversation about the Democratic race. Some remain undecided, but many more have settled on a candidate. None, however, has decided to support Clinton.

The members of this small group are in no way representative of likely caucus participants, and so their views should not be mistaken as a sign of who may win or lose the caucuses in January. The degree to which they are not representative of current polling in the state is apparent in that candidates such as Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) enjoy more support among them than does Clinton or former senator John Edwards (N.C.).

These are voters who rely less on cues from national polls than on personal observation and knowledge of the candidates to make their judgments. They are among the most privileged voters in the country in terms of access to candidates, having met and spoken to many of them personally and repeatedly.

Four members of the group said Friday that they have attended Clinton events; five said they have heard Edwards; six said they have gone to see Biden; and nine said they have turned out to see Obama.

Clinton has spent months systematically trying to improve her standing in the state, and her advisers believe she has made progress. But among these activists, judgments about her were often harsh.

"She's too polarizing," said Bev Hedgecoth, who said she is still undecided. "She's not going to draw any independents or Republicans" in the general election.

Hedgecoth's husband, Dale, who has been going door to door for Obama, was even more impassioned about the risk of losing the general election if Clinton is the nominee. "We have to win this one, guys, we have to win this one," he said, as if giving a pep talk to the others. "We can't get this wrong, or the Democratic Party will be in shambles for 30 years."

"She cannot bring the country together," said Kay Hale, who supports Dodd.

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