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On Day One, Kirsten Gillibrand faces the ‘likable’ question

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced in Troy, N.Y., on Jan. 16 that she is running for president. (Video: Reuters)

Standing in front of a diner with her family in Upstate New York on Wednesday morning, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) fielded the first media question of her newly announced presidential campaign.

A reporter declared that “a lot of people see you as pretty likable, a nice person, given the person who we have in the White House” and asked whether that was a “selling point.” He compared her to another Democratic senator considering a run for president whom he also deemed likable — Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — and asked whether voters want “someone like that now.”

“I believe that what people want in our state and around the country is someone who will fight for them and someone who not only understands what their problems actually are but will then do what it takes to solve that problem,” Gillibrand said, balling her hands into fists as she spoke. “You have to be willing to have the courage and the compassion and the fearless determination to take on those battles. And they just need to know that you understand them.”

As Gillibrand introduces herself to more Americans this week — a quest that will take her across Iowa this weekend — the 12-year member of Congress and former Manhattan corporate lawyer is presenting herself in a few different ways: the mother of two young boys who knows how to burp a baby (something she demonstrated on national television Tuesday night) and would “fight for other people’s kids as hard as I fight for my own.” The resident of a working-class town who likes dive bars and swearing, has declined campaign donations from corporate political action committees and knows that “a lot of people feel left behind.” A fighter who hasn’t been afraid to challenge members of her own party and will “take on the systems of power,” including drug and insurance companies, and “take on institutional racism, which holds far too many communities back.” And a working woman who has to deal with a male reporter asking her to comment on his assessment of her likability.

Gillibrand, 52, points to her easy victories in recent elections as evidence that she can appeal to and speak for a wide swath of Americans — from supporters of President Trump, especially those living in rural areas or working in manufacturing or agriculture, to mothers living in suburban communities who were not inspired to vote for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

Gillibrand first ran for office in 2006, beating a four-term Republican in a conservative congressional district that includes the Albany suburbs. She was then appointed to the Senate in 2009 to fill the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton when she was named secretary of state. Gillibrand won a special election in 2010 with 63 percent of the vote. In 2012, when she earned her first full term, she earned 72 percent. Last year, she won with 67 percent of the vote.

“I can reach out to all of those people because I’ve done that for 12 years,” she said.

In announcing her candidacy Tuesday night on CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and repeating her decision outside her family’s favorite diner in Troy, N.Y., on Wednesday morning, Gillibrand quickly rattled through what she would do if elected president: ensure that health care is “a right and not a privilege,” improve public schools, implement job training, address global climate change and “get money out of politics.” Gillibrand said that the first thing that she would do in office is “restore what’s been lost, the integrity and the compassion of this country.”

She spent little time delving into the details of those positions and focused instead on explaining her view of the country and the values that she would bring to the White House, pitching herself as a listener who can “find common ground” with Republicans and “get things done.”

In a Democratic field that’s quickly filling — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), former Maryland congressman John Delaney, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former West Virginia state senator Richard Ojeda have announced, and at least a dozen others are expected to soon join — candidates are differentiating themselves less on policy stances, which are often similar, and more on their experience, background, personality and leadership approach.

Talking to reporters outside the diner on Wednesday morning, Gillibrand introduced her family: Her husband Jonathan, a British financier who shouted in excitement as she again announced that she was running. Her mother, Polly, who became emotional at times. Her 15-year-old son Theo, who stood stoically to her right and did not smile. And her 10-year-old son Henry, who grew restless as the news conference dragged on and made sure his mother knew he was cold.

In running for reelection last year, Gillibrand promised that she would serve another full term in the Senate and not run for president — a decision she quickly reversed after winning. Local reporters quizzed her on this broken promise, and she said that she has become so alarmed by what’s happening in the country that she was compelled to run.

“This sense of urgency has only grown in me, and I wanted to talk to my family — I’ve got really cute kids, wonderful children, and they will be making sacrifices, too,” she said. “And so this is something that I really needed to give that long, hard consideration. . . . And I do feel so called to fight as hard as I can right now.”