By JOHN WHITESIDES
Hillary Rodham Clinton won new converts and thrilled old fans with a polished performance on her first campaign foray to Iowa, but left plenty of questions for Democrats evaluating the crowded field of White House contenders.
On a two-day weekend swing across the state’s frozen farmlands, the New York senator charmed big crowds of curious Democrats, laughed at herself, patiently signed autographs, posed for photos and talked at length about issues from health care to education.
“I was a little surprised, she seemed more down to earth than I expected. She seemed to be talking to Iowans — she didn’t seem aloof or reserved at all,” said Ted Childers, a retired Sears sales manager in Davenport.
But one year before Iowa kicks off the 2008 presidential race with the first nominating contest, many Democrats said they needed to see and hear more of the former first lady before they made up their minds.
Questions about the viability of her historic attempt to become the first woman president, about her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war and about her sometimes polarizing effect on voters were never far from the surface.
Joe Wathan of Durant, Iowa, said after her appearance in Davenport he wondered if Clinton would be able to negotiate on a level playing field with male world leaders.
“I have my concerns about if she’ll be able to handle it being a woman, and not because she doesn’t have the knowledge or ability but whether she’ll get the respect from a man,” he said.
Childers said he was leaning toward backing Clinton “but I don’t know if she can win. I’m not convinced she is electable.”
Karen Hean, a mother of three who operates a child care facility in Davenport, said Clinton answered doubters about her personality and electability.
“It seems like she has really warmed up a lot. I have watched her change over the years, her experiences have really humanized her,” she said. “She has what it takes to get elected, and the climate in this country right now is such that we’re ready for a woman president.”
Showing a warmer side of Clinton was one goal of the trip to Iowa, which Clinton had not visited since 2003 and where party activists are accustomed to measuring candidates in person.
While Clinton leads the 2008 Democratic pack in national polls, which are largely a function of name identification, she trails 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards in Iowa and is running behind or even in the state with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Clinton addressed the qualms about her candidacy. She said it was time to move past double standards for women in politics, promised to bridge partisan divides and pledged to campaign “the Iowa way” — with small, face-to-face events as well as big rallies.
“I am going to be asking people to vote for me based on my entire life and experience. The fact that I’m a woman, the fact that I’m a mom, is part of who I am, but I’m going to ask people to vote for the person they believe will be the best president,” she said at her kickoff rally in Des Moines.
She heard questions about her vote on Iraq at most stops. She said she was misled by the administration and offered blistering criticism of Bush’s leadership in the war. The issue now, she said, is finding a way to stop his plan to put more troops in Iraq.
At a house party in Cedar Rapids, she acknowledged the strong feelings she engendered from opponents. “I think the other side views me as a worthy adversary,” she said.
Many Iowans, accustomed to their role as early gatekeepers in the presidential race, said they will take their time making up their minds.
“She was very impressive and very positive, but I’m giving myself the freedom to listen to all of the candidates,” Dorothy Cunningham of Des Moines said.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 Reuters Limited