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Friends, supporters help sell Clinton's softer side

December 18, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

JOHNSTON, IOWA — Eager to present a more likable public face, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is giving herself a multimedia makeover.

The Democratic presidential candidate is hoping to counter impressions that she is a guarded, intimidating figure who cares more for policy analysis than for people. So a number of her friends, constituents and former aides are offering testimonials this week, hoping to humanize a candidate who has been dogged by high unfavorable ratings.

On Monday, the campaign released a Web video titled "The Hillary I Know," part of the full-scale effort to paint Clinton in a more sympathetic hue.

Says one man on the video, She's got "this motherly . . . thing going on."

At a campaign stop in a wooden barn here, surrogates for the campaign sought to vouch for Clinton as a person, working in the phrase "the Hillary I know" wherever possible.

After they spoke, the New York senator took the stage.

"Here in Iowa, I want you to have some flavor of who I am outside the television cameras -- when all the cameras and the lights disappear, what I do when nobody is listening and taking notes and recording it," she said. "Because it's hard, when you're in public life, to have that kind of sharing experience with thousands and millions of people."

Clinton is known to be a private person uncomfortable with the confessional, self-revelatory style of modern campaigning perfected by her husband, who even disclosed his underwear preference (briefs over boxers) during a 1994 forum on MTV.

She is trying to loosen up out of necessity: She rates high among the candidates when it comes to experience, but trails her chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, when the measure is likability.

Of late Clinton is trying to show a lighter side. Visiting a livestock auction house Sunday, she jokingly urged the crowd to inspect her as they inspect cattle. "Look inside my mouth if you want," she told them.

Speaking on Monday to a group of campaign aides at her Des Moines headquarters, Clinton suggested that it took a bit of coaxing for her to go along with the new approach.

"It's a little hard sometimes to be standing there listening to people talk about yourself, because that's not who I am," she said, standing near a table of doughnuts and bagels she had purchased for the staff. "I'm more interested in trying to help other people. But I've been convinced that I have to do this."

Clinton's opponents contend that the effort is meaningless.

"In fairness, I think the only image makeover that would work would be Sen. Clinton saying 'no' to lobbyist money and finally embracing an agenda of real change," said Chris Kofinis, communications director for the campaign of another Democratic rival, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

With just 2 1/2 weeks before the Iowa caucuses, recasting Clinton as a likable figure is a tough task. Recent surveys have put her unfavorable rating as high as 50%.

For some, she is forever linked to the political battles of her husband's administration: the White House travel office firings, her claim that her husband was the victim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy;" her clashes with federal prosecutors who examined her business dealings in Arkansas.

Now Clinton wants voters to take a fresh look at her. Supporters are crisscrossing Iowa with the message that the real Hillary Clinton is not the imperious politician they might perceive. Over the weekend, about two dozen friends from elementary school boarded a bus in Chicago and came to Iowa to talk about her.

Betsy Ebeling, who met Clinton in the sixth grade, told how her friend was self-conscious about her thick glasses. When she wanted to meet boys, she would remove them and ask Ebeling to guide her around the school and whisper the names of boys in the hallways.

"Do all of you understand she's a mom?" Ebeling said. "She's a daughter. Her mom lives with her. She takes care of her mom. She's a wife. She's a great sister. She's our friend."

In recent days, Clinton's tone has softened, and she is less apt to criticize Obama or Edwards by name.

During the visit to her headquarters, heavily populated with campaign workers the same age as her daughter, Chelsea, she projected a maternal air, hugging aides and apologizing for keeping them at work through the holidays.

At the last event of the day, in Coralville, a man in the audience asked Clinton what she would do about all the people "who just don't like you." He said he was worried that Clinton wouldn't be able to convince them that she was right for the presidency -- that they already know who she is.

"No," Clinton shot back, "they don't."

She then said: "There are people who would never vote for me. It breaks my heart. It's true."

The reason, she said, is that when a politician takes on special interests as long as she has, "you're going to get beat up."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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