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Clinton woos voters in Iowa

She defends her vote on the Iraq war and touts her chance of being the first female president.

January 28, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton took on the full trappings of a presidential candidate Saturday on her first campaign swing across Iowa, where she defended her early support of the Iraq war and played up her chance to "break a historic barrier" as the first woman to win the White House.

Clinton's Iowa visit opened her yearlong courtship of Democratic voters in the state whose precinct caucuses launch the 2008 presidential nominating process. Clinton, who is leading her Democratic rivals in national polls but not in Iowa, sought above all to spur excitement over her status as the only major female candidate.

"When people tell me, 'Well you know, I don't think a woman can be elected president,' I say, 'Well, I don't believe that, but we're going to find out,' " she told nearly 2,000 Iowans at her campaign kickoff rally in a Des Moines school gymnasium.

Greeted with repeated roars of cheering, the New York senator and former first lady said she expected "more stories about my clothes and hair than some of the people running against me."

"I just have accepted that," she said. "And there may be some other kind of funny stories about differences between us, or a little bit of the double standard, but I just reject that. You know, I think we've got to move beyond that. I'm going to be asking people to vote for me based on my entire life and experience."

Vowing tougher federal action to ensure equal pay for women and men, she told the crowd: "Women have made progress, and I'm very proud of that, but it is still not equitable."

For Clinton, who announced Jan. 20 that she was forming a presidential exploratory committee, the weekend spent in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport marks her first foray before live voters after several online and carefully screened chats.

At the school rally, Clinton operatives supplied thousands of "Hillary for President" placards and bumper stickers.

Dangling from the gymnasium ceiling were red-white-and-blue banners declaring: "Let the conversation begin! Iowa welcomes Hillary Clinton for President."

But the commotion created by the dozens of television crews and scores of reporters covering her appearance threatened to upend the intimate bonding that Iowans had come to expect from presidential candidates.

"I want to have this as a one-on-one conversation, just you and me and about several hundred national press people," Clinton joked at the rally. "But I have to tell you that will fade, and we'll actually be able to pursue this conversation in a very personal way."

She attempted to do that Saturday evening at a Cedar Rapids gathering with roughly 150 invited guests at a private home where media access was limited.

In larger settings, like the Des Moines school rally, her reception was overwhelmingly favorable.

"Being the first lady, she must have learned a lot there," said Des Moines teacher Samra Olofson, 52, who sees Clinton as the most experienced Democrat in the race. "I've been hoping she would run for a long time."

For now, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president, is leading Iowa polls, followed by Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and others. Edwards, a frequent Iowa visitor over the last two years, has made painstaking efforts to expand his political network in the state, leaving Clinton and Obama to play catch-up.

With that in mind, Clinton met Friday with Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat who has not endorsed a presidential candidate. Clinton also dropped by a diner Friday night for a milkshake with a Des Moines Register political columnist and met Saturday with union leaders at a hotel.

In public, Clinton tried to appeal to Democrats in this largely rural state by reminding them of the upstate New York farming regions that she represents in the Senate.

"We have cows -- and on our farms live happy cows," she told several dozen Democrats gathered at state party headquarters Saturday morning.

There, as elsewhere, Clinton faced questions about her 2002 vote to authorize the war.

"I've taken responsibility for my vote, but there are no do-overs in life," she said. "I wish there were. I acted on the best judgment I had at the time."

Clinton reminded the crowd of her support for a cap on the number of U.S. troops in the war and her opposition to President Bush's plan to add more than 20,000.

"We have to build the political will within the Congress to stop President Bush," she said. "That means getting Republicans to turn on this policy and turn against the president."

At the same time, she said she was against "cutting off funds to troops in the field."

Jim Hutter, a former state Democratic committee member who asked Clinton about the war, said: "I thought it was a great answer."

As she campaigned in Des Moines, Clinton alternated between taking shots at the Bush administration and reminiscing about the Clinton White House years.

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