Clinton Is Cultivating an Image as a Centrist

Times Staff Writer

It looked like a traditional event for a rural politician: A member of Congress, standing before a sweltering summer crowd, had come to toast a local Farm Bureau official.

But the star here last week was Hillary Rodham Clinton, better known as a national liberal symbol than a hero to the traditionally Republican farming community.

In a sparsely populated part of Long Island, amid vineyards and a zinnia patch, the Democratic senator from New York boasted of raising the visibility of the state’s agricultural sector among her Washington colleagues.

“They didn’t know we grew anything in New York except tall buildings,” she quipped.


It was far from the world of national politics usually associated with Clinton. Even while speculation grows that she will run for president in 2008, Clinton spends much of her time on the more pedestrian work of representing New York: appearing at food banks, meetings on traffic congestion and -- as she did last week -- a Farm Bureau reception.

But her twin worlds of local and national politics have something in common. In New York, where she is running for reelection in 2006, and in the Senate, where she is shaping her national persona, Clinton is moving to shed the partisan image she acquired as first lady.

She has taken up causes such as economic development and military overhaul that are nonpartisan or more centrist than her work in championing a national healthcare plan while her husband was president. She is teaming with local Republican officials and with some of the Senate’s most conservative members.

Those efforts are beginning to pay off in New York. Her approval ratings have jumped significantly since she was elected in 2000 -- even among Republicans. It is a sign that Clinton, one of the most polarizing political figures in America, has found a way to get a second look from New York voters.

“I hated her with a passion,” said John Perri, a Long Island businessman who heard Clinton speak last week at a country club in Woodbury, N.Y. “But I’ve come to respect her. She’s a lot more moderate now.”

The question for Clinton now is whether she can get a second look from skeptics in the rest of the nation. In a presidential race, she would be courting swing voters in the South and other regions who are far more conservative than the moderate Republicans and independents of New York. But if she lurched too conspicuously to the center, some strategists say, Clinton might feed a suspicion harbored even by some Democrats: that she is an ambitious opportunist who tailors her views for political purposes.

“By trotting her out with some Republican every other week, it shows she’s not the crazy liberal you think she is,” said one seasoned Democratic strategist who admires Clinton. “But it also conveys that she’ll do anything to get elected.”

What’s more, Clinton would have to contend with a vocal national contingent of Republicans whose hostility toward her is matched only by their feelings for her husband. That sentiment was clear at a recent reception held by the College Republicans, where the crowd burst into deafening boos when the senator’s picture flashed on TV.


The Republican Party taps into that animus by showing Clinton on its fundraising material. “She has taken over [Sen. Edward M.] Kennedy’s role as the best fundraiser Republicans have,” said Stephen Minarik, chairman of the New York State GOP.

Veteran GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein has started a group to derail Clinton’s ambitions. Stop Her Now aims to raise $10 million through its website; its first radio ad, to air this summer, attacks Clinton as a liberal wolf in moderate sheep’s clothing.

Clinton says she is focusing on her Senate reelection campaign and refuses to comment on her presidential prospects.

“With two websites already up and running against me, and a lot of energy on the other side, I’m not taking anything for granted,” Clinton said in an interview. She deflected questions about whether she would promise New York voters, as she did in 2000, to serve her full six-year term in the Senate.


“One step at a time,” she said.

Republicans acknowledge it will be hard to beat her in New York next year. Her popularity and name recognition are high, and she has already raised more money than any other senator facing reelection. Moreover, the GOP has not coalesced behind a candidate to challenge her.

“She will be a very, very formidable incumbent to beat,” Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) said.

In her first Senate bid, Clinton ran with a staggering load of political baggage.


Conservatives demonized her for her role in promoting her husband’s failed healthcare plan. Voters puzzled over her marriage after her husband was impeached on charges arising from his relationship with a young intern. Because the first lady was an Illinois native who had spent most of her life in Arkansas and Washington, she was derided by many as a carpetbagger who wanted to pass through New York on her way to the White House.

Still, she won with 55% of the vote -- after former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out of the race. (He was replaced as the GOP nominee by Rep. Rick Lazio.)

During her first years in the Senate, Clinton shunned national publicity and focused on New York issues. Even after she began taking a higher profile on national issues, Clinton continued to use her celebrity and clout on local matters, endearing herself to constituents such as farmers and businessmen who might not have been her natural allies.

Upstate New York, the state’s Republican stronghold, is an area accustomed to being neglected in favor of the more populous downstate region. But Clinton has paid it special attention.


She once persuaded dozens of New York City chefs, restaurant owners and wine retailers to join her on a bus tour of upstate wineries and enjoy a four-course meal featuring New York produce.

She recruited investment bankers and the head of EBay to help arrange for rural small-business owners to learn how to use the online auction site to sell their products. She instituted an annual “farm day” reception in Washington to display the state’s produce, including apples, oysters and wine.

Clinton’s attention to local detail seems to be paying off. According to a poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., her approval ratings in New York jumped from 30% just after she was elected in 2000 to 56% in April 2005. In upstate New York, her approval rating rose from 29% to 47%.

During her swing through Long Island last week, it was clear that Clinton’s celebrity status had not waned. At every event, she was swamped by autograph seekers and people pleading to have photographs taken with her -- when her protective staff and Secret Service detail allowed people near her.


She received ovations from senior citizens in Rockville Centre, where she conducted a spirited attack on President Bush’s plans to overhaul Social Security.

Speaking to businesspeople in Woodbury, Clinton took a more measured tack. She told the audience that her father had supported Richard Nixon for president in 1960. She let drop that she had cosponsored a healthcare initiative with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the conservative firebrand who led the 1998-99 effort to impeach her husband. And her views on healthcare were hardly the socialism her critics claimed she espoused.

“We need a consensus, and it needs to be led by the private sector,” she said.

That tone appeals to independents such as Perri, who said he used to view Clinton as an “aggressive, ambitious woman who would do anything to get into power.” After the program, he delighted Clinton by introducing himself as a “reformed Hillary hater” who now is a supporter.


Others are not as impressed.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said he got an earful from a Republican constituent after he made an appearance with Clinton.

When Clinton recently announced a project with Foodlink, a food bank in Rochester, some hostile staff members had to be prodded to join a group picture with her, said the group’s executive director, Tom Ferraro.

Some conservative activists hope to do to Clinton what Republicans did last year to the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry: portray her as a liberal who has shifted positions for political purposes.


“This new moderate Hillary is a creation of polling,” said William Black, executive director of Stop Her Now.

Clinton denies she has changed her views, but she seems resigned to being a punching bag for conservatives. “You have no control over that,” she said. “I know I still have the same beliefs and values I always had.”

For Republicans in New York, the first challenge is to settle on a candidate to oppose her in 2006. GOP strategists want the race to be competitive enough that Clinton will have to spend most of her time and money in her home state rather than around the country to help other candidates, as she has done.

Republican Edward Cox, a lawyer who is the late President Nixon’s son-in-law, has announced an exploratory committee. Some party strategists have urged Jeanine Pirro, Westchester County district attorney, to run. But a poll late last month by Quinnipiac University found that Clinton led Pirro 63% to 29% and outpolled Cox 64% to 26%.


Cox argues that Clinton’s strong standing in polls is a function of her high name recognition. He says she is vulnerable to the charge that she will not be a good senator if she is intent on running for president and if her party remains in the minority in the Senate.

“She wants to have a cheap and easy win so she can go on and run for the presidency,” Cox said in a CNN interview after he announced his exploratory committee.

For some of Clinton’s fans, there’s little suspense in this race. The question is: What’s next?

“She’s going to be reelected senator; that’s a no-brainer,” said supporter Eberhard Muller, a partner in a New York City restaurant. “But there will be among Democrats some resistance to her running for president. She gives a huge opening to the other side.”