Many voters see Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as coldly ambitious, a perception that could ultimately doom her presidential campaign. So on Monday her husband made a swing through Iowa in hopes of convincing voters that she is a sympathetic figure who gave up money and power for love and marriage.
President Clinton told a crowd here that she took a chance on him when his political prospects looked dim, marrying him in 1975 when he had already lost a congressional race and was making little as a law professor at the University of Arkansas.
His appearance seemed intended to counteract polls, which show that voters don’t find the New York senator as likable or trustworthy as some of her rivals.
Bill Clinton also sought to undercut the argument, frequently mentioned in Democratic debates, that his wife is a polarizing creature of the status quo, incapable of bringing about real change.
Again and again, he used the term “change agent” in describing her.
“She has spent a lifetime as a change agent when she had options to do other things,” he said at Iowa State University.
A recent poll by the Des Moines Register rated voters’ impressions of the candidates. The survey showed that Hillary Clinton was seen as more “ego-driven” and “negative” than any of the contenders and less likable than her two main rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Clinton made four appearances Monday and is scheduled to make more stops today. Though he is popular among Democratic voters, the former president has proved an uneven campaigner on his wife’s behalf.
During one appearance last month, for example, he emphatically said he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning -- a statement that was quickly called into question. Bush administration aides who had privately briefed Clinton before the invasion in March 2003 reportedly took issue with his comments, saying he had expressed no objections at the time.
On Monday, he hewed closely to the script, repeating his wife’s message that America needs to be in the “solutions business.”
He also sought to humanize a candidate who tends to reveal little about herself on the trail.
He mentioned a college friend who called and offered to campaign door-to-door for Hillary Clinton. The former president said he asked why the friend would be willing to do that.
“He said, ‘Because I’m sick and tired of reading about what a polarizing figure she is. I have known her almost as long as you have and I have never known anybody who actually knew her who didn’t like her, admire her, respect her and follow her wherever,’ ” Clinton said.
Recent biographies have described the Clinton marriage as a pact rooted in political ambition. Bill Clinton challenged that assertion.
“She came to Arkansas to be with me,” the former president said. “When she came down there and we got married, I was a defeated candidate for Congress with a $26,000 salary and a $42,000 campaign debt. Now if she were half as calculating as somebody says, that’s a really great way to run for president some day, isn’t it: ‘I think I’ll go to a state I’ve barely seen and marry some failed politician with a $26,000 salary and a $42,000 debt.’ ”
Avoiding direct criticism of the other leading contenders for the Democratic nomination -- Obama and Edwards -- Clinton did say that his wife is more likely to get things accomplished.
But the former president appeared to be talking about Obama, who is known for his rhetorical skill, when he said: “I can stand up and give you the prettiest speech in the wide world. . . . But it’s also important to know how to get from a good intention to a specific result.”