Meet Me In St. Louis: Hillary in the Spin Room

It was approaching midnight on Oct. 8, and the second Presidential debate was history. Mike McCurry reached through the blue fabric of a television booth in the gymnasium at Washington University of St. Louis and tapped Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on the shoulder.

“Are you spinning?” she asked him with a riotous, slightly goofy laugh.

“I’m too honest for my own good,” Mr. McCurry told her, then asked about her husband’s health. “We’re getting lots of questions,” he said.

“It’s really going to be up to the doctors,” she told him. “I’m going to try to enforce whatever it is.”

Mrs. Clinton had been getting a lot of questions, too. She was in St. Louis as the highest-profile “spinner” for Senator John Kerry, and she’d already smiled through all six of the major broadcast and cable networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN.

“Well, I think what John Kerry said tonight, Tom, really summed it up. He was as good on foreign policy again tonight as he was in the first debate, and he was fabulous on domestic policy” … “Well, Larry, I’ve always thought this was going to be a close election. I’m confident that Senator Kerry’s going to win, and he’s going to win because he’s done a terrific job in communicating effectively.” … “Dan, I have to tell you, I was disappointed in the President’s performance tonight.”

Like most of the anchors, Fox’s Chris Wallace expressed his concern for her husband’s health.

“I want to assure all Fox viewers that he’s on the mend,” Mrs. Clinton said with her sweetest smile.

New York’s junior Senator, the state’s greatest political celebrity, has spent five years defusing a Lady Macbeth media image through a combination of earnest listening and hard work. And after a winter and spring of fervid speculation on her ambition—President? Vice President? stalking-horse beneficiary?—from Matt Drudge and Dick Morris and even Newsweek, Mrs. Clinton has spent six months in the trenches of John Kerry’s campaign for President. She has sent out five fundraising e-mails and two letters, sharing her rich network of political donors, said Patti Solis Doyle, a Clinton strategist. The Kerry campaign didn’t respond immediately to a query about the quantity of Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising, but a conservative estimate is that she has raised in excess of $10 million for Mr. Kerry and his support operation at the Democratic National Committee.

Mrs. Clinton has also traveled to Maine, Boston and Chicago; she’s filled in for Mr. Kerry when the candidate has been forced to ditch events on short notice; and she’s performed endless television and radio interviews for local television affiliates and national radio shows that are big in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“She’s done everything we’ve asked her to do,” said Tad Devine, a senior advisor to Senator Kerry.

After that second Presidential debate in St. Louis, Mrs. Clinton took on her most prominent role yet, and seemed to seal any cracks in what has seemed at times a troubled relationship between Mr. Kerry’s campaign and the great power in Democratic politics, the Clintons.

“Anybody looking at it seriously, looking at how much she’s done for John Kerry, has got to believe that she meant what she said,” said Ann Lewis, the communications director under President Clinton and now an official at the Democratic National Committee. “She really does think this country needs a change in direction.”

Mrs. Clinton came out strong for Mr. Kerry after he clinched the Democratic nomination on March 2. She stumped with him in Harlem as socialists harangued him about the Iraq war, and she and her husband were the highlights of the presumptive nominee’s first major fund-raising push in mid-March.

The Senator also did some of the last-minute scutwork that Presidential campaigns inevitably demand. On July 5, for example, Mr. Kerry was scheduled to address the National Education Association, but he chose that day to announce his choice of running mate. So his aides asked Mrs. Clinton to replace him on a day’s notice, which she did.

But by summer, relations between the Clinton and Kerry camps appeared strained. When the Democrats announced the line-up for their July convention, Mrs. Clinton’s name was nowhere to be found, prompting the former head of the New York State Democratic Party, Judith Hope, to denounce the choice publicly.

“It’s a slap in the face, not personally for Hillary Clinton, but for every woman in the Democratic Party and every woman in America,” Ms. Hope said at the time.

Mrs. Clinton promptly landed a slot introducing her husband, but many observers saw the reopening of a split in the Democratic Party between the New Democrat acolytes of Mr. Clinton and the Boston-based aides and admirers of Senator Edward Kennedy, who made up much of Mr. Kerry’s senior staff.

“The problem isn’t between her and Kerry, the problem is between the Kennedy and Clinton wings of the party,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic consultant. “The problem is, they don’t like each other very much.”

And in that middle phase of Mr. Kerry’s campaign—the one that took him from December’s surge in Iowa to a stagnant August in Vietnam—he was surrounded by people close to Senator Kennedy. His chief consultant, Bob Shrum, his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, and his communications director, Stephanie Cutter, had all been identified with Mr. Kennedy well before they came to Mr. Kerry’s side.

August, a bad month for the Kerry campaign, was also a quiet one for Mrs. Clinton. Congress was in recess, and Mr. Kerry was focused on delivering a positive message to swing voters, not on attacking Mr. Bush or responding to attacks on his own record in Vietnam.

“They were sniping, tailoring their message for very tiny audiences of swing voters. They were being too cute,” said one Democratic strategist. “Now they’re shooting with buckshot, and now they’re hitting more.”

Mrs. Clinton’s return was part of the switch back to heavy firepower. On Aug. 29, she appeared on Meet the Press, This Week with George Stephanopoulos and Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer the Sunday before the Republican National Convention.

Those Sunday appearances presaged a sharper shift in early September, when—in a quickly leaked, 90-minute conversation from his hospital bed—former President Bill Clinton offered Mr. Kerry some advice. “Clinton told Kerry that he should move away from talking about Vietnam, which had been the central theme of his candidacy, and focus instead on drawing contrasts with President Bush on job creation and health-care policies,” according to The New York Times ’ account of the conversation.

Mr. Kerry did move away from Vietnam, though he has ignored the second half of Mr. Clinton’s advice, running an increasingly pointed campaign on the war. But if Mr. Clinton’s ideas didn’t penetrate, his staff did. A passel of old Clinton hands, most of them former White House aides, instantly appeared in offices in Kerry-Edwards ’04 headquarters or the Democratic National Committee and stepped into increasingly prominent roles in the campaign. There were the former White House press secretaries Mr. McCurry and Joe Lockhart, strategists Joel Johnson and Doug Sosnik, and the former communications director of Mrs. Clinton’s own run for Senate, Howard Wolfson.

It was, Mr. McCurry told The Observer, something of a “class reunion.”

It also made it that much easier for Mrs. Clinton to become one of Mr. Kerry’s key surrogates.

“I think that the convention snafu was primarily staff-driven,” said Ms. Hope, who is also the president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee. “Obviously a lot of the people that she’s worked closely with now are very active on the campaign staff, which never hurts.”

The former First Lady’s role as a key Kerry supporter has not been diminished by what seem like important differences between the two on the central issue of the campaign—the war. Mrs. Clinton was a hawkish, steady supporter of the Iraq invasion, even after other Democrats began to backtrack. She voted for the $87 billion supplementary appropriations bill for Iraq that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards both famously voted against.

“Hillary Clinton is far to the right of John Kerry,” Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush’s campaign manager, told The Observer. “Maybe she’s there to reassure moderates and conservatives that Kerry’s not so liberal.”

This was nobody’s favorite subject in St. Louis. Mrs. Clinton, though she supported the war, has launched Kerryesque attacks on Mr. Bush’s management of it.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” said Jamie Rubin, the State Department spokesman under Mr. Clinton, in St. Louis to spin. “But I understand why you would be writing that.”

But if Mrs. Clinton’s positions cause any concern in the Kerry camp, her celebrity overwhelms it. At 9:30 p.m. sharp on Friday night, an aide with blond hair and a black suit marched into the gymnasium at Washington University of St. Louis, carrying a red, white and blue pole over her head with the words “Sen. Clinton.”

The gymnasium, transformed with desks, television monitors and cameras into the official spin room for the second Presidential debate, was already full of similar signs. But at the sight of the Clinton name, dozens of reporters detached themselves from the big yellow “W” signs for Karen Hughes and George Pataki, and also the Democrats’ advertisements for Mr. Lockhart and Richard Holbrooke. Instead, they stood in a circle four-deep around the blond woman with the Clinton sign who, they found to their confusion, was not Senator Clinton. She was Susan Anderson, a campaign volunteer from St. Louis, and she was getting increasingly edgy as the reporters circled in and Mrs. Clinton failed to appear.

“There seems to be some confusion,” Ms. Anderson said.

After 17 nervous minutes, she dropped the sign into a jousting pose and hustled down a hallway, trailed by reporters from German, Norwegian and Italian newspapers.

It was nearly 11 p.m. in St. Louis, an hour after the debate had ended, when Mrs. Clinton slipped into the spin room through a side door, no sign in sight, and hopped up into a broadcast booth in her light turquoise suit and matching jewelry. Mrs. Clinton was still spinning—first the New York affiliate of ABC, and then a series of California stations.

By the time she responded to the second invisible anchor in California, Mrs. Clinton had sharpened her answer to the question about her husband’s health.

“He’s actually, I think, being helped by these debates to recover more quickly because John has done so well,” she said.

Still, there hadn’t been a single question about her own ambitions, no mention of stalking horses or plots or Clinton ’08.

Finally, on her way out the door, she took a few minutes to speak to a pair of print reporters and took an oblique question about her own future.

“I’m one of these people, I just try to live one day at a time,” she replied. “Right now, I’m just thrilled at the debate … I thought that Senator Kerry was commanding and masterful. Now I’m going to get up tomorrow and keep fighting and working for Senator Kerry to be elected President.”