In Iowa, Hillary Clinton is listening but not saying much

Hillary Clinton's swing through Iowa had more of an illusion of give-and-take than the real thing

Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off her presidential run in Iowa with an implicit pledge: that she would be a different candidate and run a different campaign than in 2008, when she was viewed as imperial and distant en route to a third-place finish in the caucuses.

Clinton, her aides said, wanted to meet with and listen to Iowans in small, intimate gatherings.

But her two-day swing here, ending Wednesday, showed the limits of that approach. There was more of an illusion of give-and-take than the real thing.

The slickly produced gatherings produced pretty pictures — sometimes recorded by her campaign ad team — that were beamed around the world. But they were not open to the public; the participants and audiences were hand-picked. Clinton faced no challenging questions from voters and she largely avoided talking to reporters.

To be sure, all campaigns use stagecraft to forward their message. Participants in discussion panels with candidates are often vetted.

Clinton, a former senator and first lady, has unique considerations because of who she is. Her security requirements — she has Secret Service protection — led students at a school where she spoke Tuesday to be briefly held in their rooms, and workers in the building where she held a Wednesday event to be barricaded for three hours during her visit — situations that swiftly became public.

But Clinton had implied a more freewheeling approach, and the question that lingered after she left was whether her carefully choreographed visit had improved views of her.

"Most candidates do something like that during some part of a campaign," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. But, he added, "you have a lot of people who want to see her, who want her to come out and work a rope line and talk to them."

They want the candidate to "look them in the eye, shake their hand and tell them where you stand. Sometimes that means fielding questions you weren't expecting."

Clinton's visit stood in sharp contrast with those of likely Republican presidential candidates who have been flooding the state to court voters.

During former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's recent visit to Iowa, he spoke at events that were open to the public and repeatedly took questions from reporters. He also answered challenging questions from Iowans, including some that touched on unpopular positions such as his support for phasing out the renewable fuel standard. (The federal mandate is popular here because it supports the use of ethanol, which the state produces from corn.)

After her appearance Wednesday before business owners at a fruit-packing firm, Clinton did not respond to media questions about her position on same-sex marriage, or about her use of private email while she was secretary of State.

Republicans, predictably, hammered her approach Wednesday.

"Hillary Clinton still refuses to answer simple questions about her record," said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. "Iowans deserve to know why Clinton is keeping the public from seeing more than 30,000 emails she sent while secretary of State and why she specifically dodged attempts at congressional oversight."

Clinton's visit included stops at a coffee shop and a diner, as well as some private meetings. At her public events, she met with supporters in small roundtables, and spent as much time asking the participants questions as she did discussing her presidential run. The constant message: Clinton is listening.

"Before I roll out my policies, I want to hear from people on the front lines," Clinton told the business owners Wednesday.

After an hourlong discussion that covered topics such as income inequality, healthcare, burdensome regulations and the need to spur small-business creation, Clinton posed for pictures then left for a private meeting with Democratic state lawmakers at the gold-domed state Capitol.

Twitter: @LATSeema

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