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Hillary Hits The Hustings

6 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Davenport

It was the kind of magically spontaneous moment that happens all too rarely in the tightly scripted world of a big-time presidential campaign. In the first of what is going to be hundreds of packed Iowa living rooms that Hillary Clinton will visit over the next year, Dale Todd stepped from the crowd and introduced his son Adam, a 7-year-old scamp in a red sweater vest, who suffers from a tricky form of epilepsy that has defied every one of the half a dozen medications he has tried. The former Cedar Rapids city councilman told his neighbors that Clinton had pushed harder than anyone else in the Congress to find research money to beat the disease. Then he dissolved into tears, and Clinton wrapped her arms around him, choking up herself.

You would think Todd’s was one vote she could count on in next year’s Iowa caucuses. And you would be wrong. “I’m not there yet,” Todd told me a few minutes later. “The war is a real concern. We’re going to have to reach a point in time when she says the war is a real mistake.”

That’s pretty much the way it works in Iowa, where voters famously take their time making up their mind. Even a former First Lady is going to have to win the way everyone else does, one elusive vote at a time. “I may be the most famous woman you don’t really know,” she said at a Cedar Rapids Teamsters hall where 20 people had been invited to see her and 275 showed up, “so I’m going to give you a chance to get to know a little bit more about me.”

Clinton vows to do this “the Iowa way,” in the intimacy of church basements and union halls. But for her that may not be so easy. Her crowds are bigger than anyone else’s. So is her media entourage; her first weekend on the campaign trail was chronicled by four television networks from Japan alone. There’s also the excitement that goes with being the first woman to have a real shot at a major party’s presidential nomination, which means that at places like the Drake Diner in Des Moines, people brought their daughters to have their pictures taken with her. After her first big rally, at East High School in Des Moines, Clinton hung around for nearly an hour so that every one of the 2,600 people there could have a handshake and a photo if they wanted that. “It felt actually more like a week before an election than a year before the election,” she told me in an interview a few days later back in Washington. “There was that much emotion and intensity and energy.”

Even in Iowa, though, few voters are brave enough to talk about their doubts and reservations to a candidate’s face. Clinton knows that. So as she stumped from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids to Davenport, you could hear her trying to answer the question that hadn’t been asked: Can someone as polarizing as Hillary Clinton really be elected? “I know how to win,” she insisted at the Teamsters hall. “I can win the nomination and I can win the general election because there isn’t anybody besides my husband who’s been through more with the folks on the other side than I have, and I know how to beat them.”

Then there is the issue that looms over everything else in the election. Clinton says that had she known then what she knows now, she never would have voted to authorize the Iraq war. But she is not ready to say the words that voters like Todd want to hear: I was wrong.

“The President was the one who was wrong,” she told me, smacking the table at which we sat. “The President led people to believe that he would be prudent in the exercise of the authority he was given, and that proved not to be true. Keeping the focus on the President and the Vice President, about what they did and didn’t do, the mistakes they made, is really where it needs to be, because he’s the only one who can reverse course.”

On some issues, however, you can hear Clinton charting a new course for herself. She was criticized for cooking up a health-care plan in secret during her husband’s first term, but she now polls her audiences to see which route to universal coverage they would prefer. Usually, the majority of hands go up in favor of the Canadian-style, government-run system known as single payer–something Clinton says wouldn’t have happened when she first took on the issue in the early 1990s. “Back then, when I used to speak about health care, there were a lot of people who honestly didn’t know Medicare was a government program. I remember being stunned by that,” she says. “People know a lot more about how health care is delivered now. They know a lot more about what they pay.” But don’t expect her to be pushing that or any other specific universal health-care alternative as part of her presidential campaign. “I want to set the goals,” she says. Then she will lay out some options, she promises, and listen to what voters have to say.

Just as delicate: embracing what Democrats love about her husband while finding her way around the land mines where his policies are at odds with party sentiments today. Where he was an unapologetic free trader, for instance, she declares, “If all you say is, you’re for free trade, I think that’s denying reality.” Hillary distances herself–gently–from Bill’s hardest-fought achievement in that area, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “NAFTA was inherited by the Clinton Administration,” she insists. “Bill believed in it, and I believe in the general principles that it represented, but what we have learned is that we have to drive a tougher bargain.”

Iowa voters know a thing or two about bargaining too. “I know I have to earn every vote. None of that worries me,” Clinton says. “I’ll go back, I will answer people’s questions, I will make them feel more comfortable and open to me.” Oh, and one other thing: “I’m going to take a warmer coat next time.”

To read more of the interview with Hillary Clinton, go to time.com/hillary

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