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The trail gets bumpy for Chelsea Clinton

Times Staff Writer

The softballs come gently, lobbed by voters who support her mother and are thrilled to see that the awkward duckling of the Clinton administration has become a glamorous swan.

What is your mother’s position on healthcare? What will your mother do for special education? What is your mother’s plan to end the war in Iraq?

Chelsea Clinton, a 28-year-old self-proclaimed “numbers dork” who is on leave from her job at a New York hedge fund, answers in whole sentences and long paragraphs filled with wonky phrases and filial pride. She never talks to icky reporters (not even 9-year-olds, you may recall).

Nonetheless, this strategy has lately failed to protect her from icky questions.

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Students in states with upcoming primaries have asked whether the Monica Lewinsky scandal and her father’s impeachment have adversely affected her mother’s credibility.

“I do not think that is any of your business,” she told a Butler University student in Indiana on March 25.

The following week, the topic came up at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “I think that is something that is personal to my family,” she said. “But also on a larger point, I don’t think you should vote for or against my mother because of my father.”

These moments have generated headlines -- partly because of her unflinching answers -- and also because they raise questions about what subjects she can fairly be expected to address.

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For the first time, she is facing the kind of scrutiny that has bedeviled the candidates and their surrogates along the campaign trail.

During a long day of campaigning in Oregon on Saturday, she mentioned at two different stops that during the course of the campaign a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old had separately asked her “with terror in their eyes” what will become of the Social Security system. It’s possible they were precocious, or that their parents put them up to it, but one skeptical blogger wrote afterward that the story was “stunning in its absurdity.”

(When asked for details, such as where and when Clinton met the children, the campaign could not provide them.)

Hillary Rodham Clinton has recently stopped telling the story of a pregnant Ohio woman who lost her baby then died because she lacked health insurance and proper prenatal care. The New York senator had recounted the story as it was told to her, but the account turned out to be oversimplified and wrong on some key details, according to news reports.

Still, Chelsea Clinton continued to tell it, even getting the woman’s age wrong. (She was 35, not “younger than me,” as Chelsea Clinton reported Saturday.)

“There was some talk in the media about whether it was true or whether it was not true,” she said. “Her family has said it’s true in the interim, but what matters to me in the following story is that no one ever doubted that it could be true in our country. So here’s the story we heard . . . .”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said Chelsea Clinton should be held accountable for her stories. This story, she said, was plausible, so the telling of it, with Chelsea’s caveat, was acceptable.

“I don’t think adult daughters are held to a different standard,” Jamieson said.

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Dramatic license or not, Chelsea Clinton is considered by the campaign to be one of her mother’s most effective surrogates. Though her father is a bigger draw, former President Clinton’s tendency to engage his wife’s critics has backfired, costing her. Chelsea Clinton, on the other hand, never utters the word “Obama” in her appearances.

“She’s doing a wonderful job speaking,” said Laura Bradley, a 19-year-old Oregon State University student. “She knows so much. I’m feeling persuaded.”

Campuses have been Barack Obama strongholds, so Clinton’s youth is an asset. “I’m not that much older than you,” she often says.

Her hair is long and highlighted blond. Her black flared jeans are tight, and her gray blazer nips at her small waist. She has a boyfriend, her own apartment and a terrier named Soren. (After the philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.)

She stands very still while speaking, usually for an hour, and despite her poise occasionally slips into adolescent cadence, ending a statement with a question mark: “If you can’t afford the healthcare plan that you think best meets your needs or your family’s needs, you will be given a $3,500 tax credit?”

Mostly, her voice is low, slightly raspy like her dad’s, and curiously monotone.

“She’s very eloquent, but she’s very flat,” said Lauren Dillard, editor in chief of Oregon State University’s newspaper, the Daily Barometer, as she listened under the vaulted ceilings of the student union’s elegant lounge.

Perhaps that is due to fatigue. Her day began at 5:30 a.m. in Philadelphia and ended with a red-eye flight back to the East Coast. In between, according to campaign senior aide Philippe Reines, she would take four flights, spend 13 1/2 hours in the air and four hours driving in order to visit a Democratic Party meeting in Eugene and two college campuses -- in Corvallis and Portland -- before ending her day at a kitschy AIDS fundraiser in Portland, where everyone, including men, wore red dresses. (Clinton changed into a red Gap T-shirt for the party.) She also made three Starbucks runs.

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She can talk seamlessly about clean-burning coal and sugar-based ethanol in Brazil, the ill effects of No Child Left Behind, the earned income tax credit and the formula for troop drawdown in Iraq.

She displays a dry wit, such as the moment when a man in Eugene began a question, “With all due respect,” and Clinton interjected, with mock dismay, “Oh dear.” How would she advise her mother, he asked, if Obama were the nominee and he wanted Hillary Clinton as his vice president?

“Well, sir, you make a lot of assumptions,” she said to cheers, before telling him she couldn’t answer the question because she believes her mom is still the best candidate for the top job.

Audience members who dare to raise her father’s scandals have been booed by other audience members, and rightfully so, many think.

“You wouldn’t ask any other surrogate about Monica Lewinsky,” Jamieson said. “Those questions are inappropriate . . . intrusions on a family’s space.”

But even when a tough question is about policy, the audience is firmly in Clinton’s corner.

At Portland State University on Saturday, graduate student Paul Aranas, 28, challenged her on a topic he has studied.

“You’ve mentioned morality and the U.N.,” he said. “Why does your mom continue to support the embargo on Cuba? . . . Why does your mom denounce Hugo Chavez, a democratically elected leader?”

Clinton replied that her mother has said she hopes Raul Castro “has a different posture and a different policy than his brother.” As for the Venezuelan leader, she added, her mother takes issue with Chavez’s energy policy and human rights record.

Aranas shook his head. “Well,” Clinton said, “you can disagree, but . . . .” As Aranas started to answer, he was shushed.

“You asked your question!” hissed a woman.

“It was almost like immediate censorship,” Aranas said later.

Others, however, were bowled over by Clinton’s poise and command of the issues.

“There was only one antagonistic question and she handled it well without getting offensive,” said Mary Sykora, a 26-year-old graduate student, referring to Aranas. “She’s just as dynamic as her mother and father.”

Casey Moffett-Chaney, a New Thought minister, was equally impressed. “If she is a testament to her parents,” she said, “then no question, her mother should be president.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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