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Clinton says change better with experience

The senator responds to talk that she is too invested in Washington to chart a fresh course.

September 03, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. — Answering opponents who have painted her as a cautious figure from the past, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Sunday that they were naive if they expected to bring about real change without striking compromises and painstakingly building a consensus first.

Clinton touched on what has become a running dispute in the 2008 Democratic presidential race: Which of the major candidates is the best bet for transforming the nation's healthcare system, creating jobs and shoring up alliances abroad?

Both of Clinton's chief rivals, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, have suggested she might be too invested in Washington's culture to chart a fresh, independent course.

Clinton used a half-hour speech at the Statehouse here to address that worry, while disputing Obama's argument that his lack of Washington experience is in many ways a plus.

" 'Change' is just a word without the strength and experience to make it happen," Clinton said, with her husband sitting behind her onstage. "And I know some people think you have to choose between change and experience. Well, with me you don't have to choose."

In a statement released afterward, the Obama campaign pointed to a claim Clinton made in a recent debate: that paid lobbyists represent many ordinary Americans. Obama's implication is that no politician intent on rattling the status quo would say such a thing.

"Barack Obama will bring fundamental change to Washington because instead of claiming that lobbyists represent most Americans, he has succeeded in passing reforms that will break the stranglehold they have on our political process," the Obama campaign said.

Accompanied by her husband, Clinton is spending Labor Day weekend on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and Iowa. After leaving Concord, the couple stopped at a state fair in Hopkinton, meeting voters and pausing to inspect some prize-winning pumpkins weighing up to 1,000 pounds.

"That's the biggest pumpkin I've ever seen!" Bill Clinton said.

As his wife spoke with one of the growers, the former president bantered with reporters and TV camera crews about watermelon-growing competitions in his home state of Arkansas. Contestants were disqualified if the skin of the melons were broken, he explained.

In her Concord speech, Hillary Clinton said she would reveal her plan to revamp healthcare in two weeks. Obama, Edwards and other candidates have already released healthcare plans.

For Clinton, the issue is sensitive, and she's proceeding carefully. As first lady, she led a White House effort to expand healthcare coverage in 1993-94. But the plan foundered in the face of an intense lobbying campaign.

"I am very well aware of how difficult it will be, having been through it before," she said. "But I am proud we tried to reform healthcare to provide it to everyone in 1993 and '94, and this time we will get the job done working together."

Some in the audience seemed skeptical. Bob Williams, 65, of Chichester, N.H., said he was concerned that Clinton had waited so long to announce her plan -- and asked her about that after she finished her speech and waded into the audience to shake hands.

Williams, who runs an auto repair shop, said he had to pay $5,000 out of his pocket when he was hospitalized two years ago for a heart problem. The "cost factor," he said, is very important to his family.

In a recent interview, Edwards suggested that Clinton's track record on healthcare was not the best.

"She made a really strong effort at it in the '90s," Edwards said as he campaigned through New Hampshire by bus. "It's the most visible thing she's ever done, and she lost."

Clinton campaign aides have conceded that her approach then was flawed. Critics said she operated in secrecy, with little enthusiasm for any plan other than her own. Now she appears to be advocating a more inclusive style.

"Ultimately," she said in Concord, "to bring change you have to know when to stand your ground and when to find common ground. You need to know when to stick to your principles and fight and know when to make principled compromises."

Her husband is vouching for her. Popular among Democrats especially, President Clinton is campaigning with his wife for the third time this year. Introducing her at a nighttime rally in Portsmouth, N.H., on Sunday, he sought to rebut the notion that she would have a tough time winning a general election against a Republican. Her unfavorable ratings in some polls surpass 40% -- higher than such rivals as Obama and Edwards.

Bill Clinton rattled off other poll numbers to show that his wife stacked up favorably against some of the leading Republican candidates, then said: "This electability thing is a canard. It doesn't amount to a hill of beans."

He also said: "We can win this thing."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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