In Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's relentless mission to convert her doubters, every grasp of the microphone, every empathetic nod, every studied recitation of fact matters. In the hourlong span of a town hall meeting, an assured performance can bring a few more skeptics into the fold.
Onstage in a darkened Dartmouth College hall last month to tout her bona fides on stem cell research, Clinton slipped easily into talk-show-host mode, breezily orchestrating doctors, panelists and an audience of voters through a session aimed at promoting her as a champion of the cause. By the time it was over, Clinton's agile turn had moved several Democrats closer to her column.
"I came in concerned about her reputation for not compromising," said Tom Jacobs, who drove to the event in Hanover from the neighboring town of Lebanon with his wife, Robyn, a gynecologist, and their two sons. "I walked out thrilled."
Robyn Jacobs emerged less certain. To her, Clinton had seemed stiff in her prepared remarks. "I wouldn't be unhappy if she's the nominee, but I haven't done due diligence on the other candidates yet," she said.
For Clinton, convincing doubters among Democratic primary voters is essential for her presidential hopes. Saddled with high unfavorable ratings in national polls despite her perch atop her primary rivals and her steadiness over three debates, Clinton has to change enough hearts and minds among Democratic voters to prove that she can do it on a nationwide scale in the 2008 election.
To that end, the Clinton campaign is already deep into a concerted, poll-tested effort to sway the public conversation about her in the primary states where it matters most, portraying her as both Midwestern family woman and accomplished national leader instead of a lightning rod for ceaseless political warfare. Former President Clinton will delve into his wife's biography this week, aides said, as the couple barnstorm across Iowa for a series of high-profile Independence Day rallies.
Clinton's carefully polished appearances on the campaign trail and her early reliance on biographical videos and networks of female supporters are all part of a larger strategy battle-tested in upstate New York during two winning Senate campaigns. The aim is to cut against the grain of the known Hillary Clinton, recasting her stereotyped reputation for polarizing harshness and political calculation, aiming at voters who are dubious about her but are not partisan enemies.
"Our experience in the Senate races was instructive," said Clinton's campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, a key advisor during the earlier races. "There was the same conventional wisdom that it would be difficult for her to change opinions. And she did it."
Like a Rorschach test
During focus-group sessions early in Clinton's first Senate race in June 2000, psychologists hired by Clinton's campaign were startled by the intense anger she aroused among middle-aged and older suburban female voters. "She was like a Rorschach test," recalled clinical psychologist and writer Shira Nayman, one of the analysts who oversaw the sessions. "These women were projecting their own internal issues on her."
By the end of that campaign, Clinton outpaced her GOP opponent, former Rep. Rick Lazio, by 20 percentage points among female voters.
But now, unlike Clinton's tailored targeting of New York's upstate women, she has to mine converts among a broader, unwieldy primary mix of Democrats and even independents stretching from New Hampshire to Nevada. Tougher still is the numerical wall of her own high negatives.
Clinton has the highest unfavorable ratings of any Democratic candidate -- among surveys of potential general election voters and in polling among her own party's likely voters. Even as she has solidified her standing in the Democratic race, her unfavorable ratings in recent national polls have teetered in the mid-40% to low-50% range among likely general election voters.
In a mid-April Gallup/USA Today poll, Clinton was rated favorable by 45% of American respondents and unfavorable by 52%. Clinton's two main rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, fared better, with 52% favorable ratings -- and with 27% unfavorable for Obama and 31% for Edwards. Clinton's standing improved in May, when the same polling organization found her favorability rose to 53% and unfavorable dropped to 45%. But in June her numbers reversed, as 46% declared their approval and 50% found her unfavorable.
"It's very hard to make a second first impression," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "That's where she is right now."
Democrats are kinder to Clinton. The same April Gallup/USA Today poll showed Clinton with nearly identical favorable ratings to Obama and Edwards -- in the high 60th percentile of Democrats. But while her two rivals had unfavorable ratings in the mid-teens -- 17% for Obama and 14% for Edwards -- Clinton's disapproval measure stood at 28%.