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Clinton, in Iowa, cites experience

The presidential hopeful draws contrasts to leading rivals. She also makes her first campaign stumble.

January 29, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

DAVENPORT, IOWA — The contours of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign sharpened in her frenetic weekend visit to Iowa as she sought to distinguish herself from Democratic rivals by stressing her experience in the White House and the U.S. Senate.

In hours of remarks at stops in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, Clinton avoided direct strikes at her two leading opponents, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But her efforts to draw contrasts with them -- mainly by casting herself as more experienced -- were clear as she fielded dozens of questions from Iowans.

Looming large for Clinton was her husband's White House legacy, the upside and the downside. On Sunday, it led to her first stumble of the campaign in this snowbound city on the Mississippi River, as she made a joke widely understood to be about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then denied it had crossed her mind.

Repeating a man's question for those who could not hear him at a bagels-and-coffee gathering of several hundred, Clinton said he wanted to know "what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men."

The crowd's laughter gradually built, lasting a full 30 seconds, with the New York senator smiling gamely the entire time.

"On a slightly more serious note," she continued, "I believe that a lot in my background and a lot in my public life shows the character and the toughness that is required to be president."

When asked later at a news conference what was on her mind during the laughs, she said she was thinking she "could do a pretty good job" in pursuing Osama bin Laden, and "our leadership for the last six years hasn't really produced results."

Incredulous reporters persisted in asking what she was thinking. "I thought I was funny," she said. "You know, you guys keep telling me lighten up, be funny. You know, I get a little funny, and now I'm being psychoanalyzed."

Finally, asked whether the crowd was thinking of President Bill Clinton, she said no.

Still, Clinton's otherwise smooth navigation through her debut weekend in Iowa as a presidential candidate reflected the depth of her campaign experience -- two Senate runs, her husband's two bids for the White House and his races for Arkansas governor and attorney general.

In Cedar Rapids, she joked about her husband skipping the Iowa caucuses in 1992 because U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was in the race. "This is the only political experience I will ever have that he had never had," she said.

On foreign and domestic policy, Clinton cited her 14-year White House and Senate record, an implicit contrast with Obama, a former Illinois state senator elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, and Edwards, a former trial lawyer who served one Senate term.

As she made her way among schools, homes and diners, she portrayed her eight years as first lady as one of her main job qualifications. She also vowed to seek advice often from her husband.

"I think it's really productive for presidents to use former presidents," she said, citing President Bush's reliance on his father and her husband to raise money for tsunami relief.

She cast her failure to win congressional approval of a healthcare overhaul during Bill Clinton's first White House term as an asset, saying it taught her the value of seeking bipartisan consensus for universal coverage.

"I've been through this, and I know how hard it's going to be," she told the breakfast crowd in Davenport.

"We can't change anything if we don't get it through the Congress."

Her emphasis on bipartisanship -- whether on healthcare, Iraq or immigration -- underscored the challenge she faces in overcoming her polarizing public image, part of the Clinton White House legacy. Over and over, she compared her Iowa journeys -- she plans many more -- to her "listening tour" of upstate New York in the 2000 Senate race. Little by little, she said, she built support among Republicans who initially disliked her.

Once they "got to know me," Clinton said, "they could work through all the characterizations and stereotypes that are out there."

"That's all I'm asking for," she told 150 invited guests Saturday at a reception in Cedar Rapids.

Facing pointed questions on the unpopular war in Iraq, Clinton defended her support of a nonbinding resolution from Congress condemning the administration's increase in troop levels.

"I know there are those who say it has no teeth," she said. "But if we don't have a bipartisan statement of disapproval, we will never get the attention of this White House."

Like Edwards, Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. But over the last year, Edwards has spoken out more aggressively against the war and urged Congress to take tougher action to reduce troop levels, saying "Silence is betrayal." Obama, who was an Illinois state lawmaker when the war started, spoke out against the authorization vote at the time.

In that context, Clinton said Sunday that the U.S. "should do everything possible to bring the Iraq war to the right end as soon as we can, and bring our troops home, but let me just say here that that's easy to say, and everybody coming to Iowa's going to say it. It doesn't matter what they did or didn't do five years ago; everybody's going to say it."

Clinton also said she resented Bush's suggestion that the war would be "left to his successor." Bush went to war "with an ill-conceived plan and an incompetently executed strategy, and we should expect him to extricate our country from this before he leaves office."

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