COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA—A day after the tornadoes and brown floodwaters swept across western Iowa, it was Hillary Clinton’s turn to make landfall.
Flying in directly from a high-dollar fund-raiser at a wealthy supporter’s house in Indiana, Mrs. Clinton brought with her the most formidable political operation that money could buy and the most recognizable name in Presidential politics. She was, for all intents and purposes, the intimidating front-runner.
But that is exactly the impression of Mrs. Clinton that her campaign is intent on dispelling—especially in Iowa. Hence the small, low-profile events they’ve been relying on to showcase her retail skills and, essentially, to make up ground by playing against type.
“I appreciate you so much being here. I apologize for running a little bit late,” said Mrs. Clinton to a few hundred voters crammed into the humid cafeteria of the Lewis Central Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “We’ve had some pretty bad weather.”
In mostly intimate, theater-in-the-round events that often attract shockingly little national press attention (by Hillary standards), Mrs. Clinton is both perfecting her act and trying out new material—like discussing her recent proposal to revoke authorization for the war in Iraq.
The cozy format of the appearances is the result of a deliberate calculation by the campaign.
“We suggested that in Iowa, the whole key to winning a caucus and doing well in a caucus is relationships. And you have to develop a relationship, you have to make a connection with people—and it’s tough to make that connection when you’re in a hall of 5,000 people,” said former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who is one of the Clinton campaign’s national chairs. “They see her, they touch her, they talk to her; they realize she is personable, she is passionate, she’s intelligent and warm.”
On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Vilsack had a front-row seat to the show. Mrs. Clinton was dressed in a cream-colored pantsuit, pearls, sparkling earrings and gold bracelets. She pinned an unobtrusive black microphone to her lapel and paced a rectangle of blue carpet stuck to the linoleum floor by a perimeter of electric tape. Around her, approximately 350 men and women sat on aluminum bleachers or folding chairs and wore Hillary stickers on their shirts and mesh-backed ball caps. Four local television cameras pointed at her from a short riser. One was a camcorder.
For the event, Mrs. Clinton had done her best to camouflage her campaign’s machinery. Darkly clad Secret Service agents tried to blend into a black curtain under the Iowa state flag. Across the room, campaign aides sought invisibility under a banner listing the ideal character traits of the school’s students: “responsible, respectful and positive.”
Mrs. Clinton began by offering her own trinity of principles, saying that her late father had instilled in her the values of hard work, individual responsibility and self-reliance. Her mother, she said, had a tough childhood, being the product of teenage parents who divorced, “which wasn’t all that common” in the 1920’s.
After the impeccably folksy introduction, Mrs. Clinton launched into a display of the breadth of her specific knowledge on policy, covering the environment, the Justice Department firings, health care, alternative fuels, stem-cell research, jobs, homelessness and mental health.
She also gave her first explanation to Iowa voters of the new Iraq bill she signed onto with Senator Robert Byrd.
“On Oct. 11, 2007, we are going to have a fifth year where this President has taken us to war in a pre-emptive fashion in Iraq,” she said. “The authorization will be five years old. We believe we should repeal that authorization—whatever justification anybody thought at the time no longer exists.”
Left undiscussed were the politics behind that new policy, which seems perfectly designed to inoculate Mrs. Clinton against the question of why she voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002, and why she hasn’t made a show of contrition since then.
On Sunday, the new course seemed to be working. The applause following Mrs. Clinton’s Iraq comment drowned her out, and when it finally petered out, she had already transitioned into statements of support for the troops, and what she said was “story after story” about soldiers returning from the war to find inadequate care.
She responded to some questions with answers like “That is a very true statement, and I thank you for saying it,” before going on to talk about the issue at hand.
Whenever possible, she demonstrated her maternal side, as when she called on a little girl with a pink bow in her hair.
“That is a wonderful question. What is your name?”
“Emma,” said the little girl.
“Emily?” asked Mrs. Clinton.
“Emma,” the little girl said.
“Emma? Thank you, Emma,” said Mrs. Clinton, memorizing the name out loud. “That’s my mother’s middle name—Emma. Thank you very much.”
The question turned out to be about how we can protect the environment.
In an interview after the event, Mr. Vilsack explained what Mrs. Clinton was up to.
“What’s going to happen here is that, as she campaigns around Iowa, she will meet people with compelling stories,” he said, as he accepted cards filled out by Iowans volunteering to caucus for Mrs. Clinton. “And she is going to tell those stories. And when you tell a story, you connect with people.”
One member of the crowd offered a more dispassionate analysis.
“I noticed that when she was speaking, she tried to scan the crowd and look everyone in the eyes,” said Dylies King, a 36-year-old human-resources worker from Council Bluffs. Also: “It was interesting that nobody asked her about the war.”
Later on Sunday evening, the Senator and a few of her press aides drove in a caravan south to Red Oak. They took a slow and circuitous route, as many of the roads were closed by flooding from the nearby Nishnabotna River. She passed windmills, silos and black cows.
Eventually, Mrs. Clinton reached a local museum in Red Oak, where so many people had packed inside the atrium and Wild Prairie Rose Gift Shop that a spillover room was needed. At 5:45, the soundtrack suddenly amped up, from the background music of “Linus and Lucy” from Peanuts to Mrs. Clinton’s current campaign anthem—“Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones—and she stepped out from behind a black curtain.
“My goodness, I thought I was coming to have pie and coffee with a few people,” said Mrs. Clinton, coughing and suddenly sounding hoarse.
“You want me to move that out of the way?” she asked a bunch of little old ladies seated under her campaign sign. “You O.K. back there?”
She gave her introductory remarks again, and then, again, began boring into the substance of the issues. When she got too deep into health-care policy, she seemed to remind herself to use actual anecdotal examples. She talked about a patient with diabetes and gangrene.
In speaking about immigrant workers working on New York’s farms, she struck an almost Thornton Wilder folksiness.
“They are small farms, by and large,
” she said. “Mostly dairy farms. Fruit and vegetable farms. Horticulture, mostly.”
Asked for the first time that day about the war in Iraq, she once again found her Senate voice.
“I somewhat do differ with some of my other colleagues,” she said. “I think you have to take a hard look at the situation we are in. We are making some progress, it turns out, in what is called Al Anbar province against Al Qaeda.”
She followed up by saying that she would nevertheless get the vast majority of troops out of Iraq.
Not everyone in the mostly friendly crowd was satisfied.
“She is painting way too rosy a picture of us getting out of Iraq; she is telling us what we want to hear,” said Joe Wearin, a trim 52-year-old attorney, farmer and political independent whose son is enrolled in West Point. “I don’t want these kids of ours to have fought a war and back off and find their kids or younger brothers and sisters going back to fight the same war.”
Afterward, Mrs. Clinton signed more autographs amid a reporter-proof shell of supporters and aides.
Lacking an alternative, a reporter asked Mr. Vilsack—who once again collected contact information from new supporters—to respond on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf to a comment from Republican Senator John McCain that her Iraq proposal was “the worst possible idea that anybody could have.”
“The worst idea I have ever heard was trying to solve Iraq with 22,000 more people,” Mr. Vilsack responded. “That just isn’t going to work. The worst idea that I have ever heard is relying on the Iraqi government to turn itself around without benchmarks, without some pressure from the United States government, which is what Democrats are trying to do—and Senator McCain is standing in the way of it.”
A few minutes later, Mrs. Clinton’s motorcade drove down a gravel path in search of drained roads and the Shenandoah airport, where a plane waited to take her to Chicago for some higher-profile campaigning. Back in the museum, people gave her high marks.
“She seems to have moved to the center, which is good for us out here, and she has noticed that the majority of Americans are against the war,” said Jim Clark, a 57-year-old contractor from Shenandoah.
“I like the way she speaks and outlines her plan,” said Jacqueline Richards, 70, from Red Oak. “She is a decent woman.”