Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is looking for sympathy, support and political cover as her rivals show the temerity to run aggressively against the Democratic presidential front-runner. But don’t feel sorry for her — Clinton is no stranger to “piling on.”

In fact, she’s an expert at it.

Ask anybody who stood on the marble floor of the state Capitol rotunda in 1990 and heard the click, clack, click of her low-heeled shoes approach the news conference of Tom McRae, a mild-mannered public servant who had the nerve to challenge then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas for re-election.

“Tom!” the state’s first lady shouted. “I think we oughta get the record straight!”

McRae, a former Clinton appointee, stood a good chance of defeating the incumbent until Hillary Rodham Clinton sandbagged him. Holding a sheaf of papers, she crashed the news conference to undermine McRae’s measured criticism of her husband’s record.

“Many of the reports you issued not only praise the governor on his environmental record,” she said, “but his education and his economic record!”

McRae didn’t know how to respond without looking like a sexist bully. His candidacy was over. The Clintons’ dreams for re-election and the White House lived on.

The McRae massacre came to mind this week after the Democratic presidential debate, when Clinton essentially hid behind her pantsuit in response to a public shellacking like the one she gave McRae.

Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic nomination seized on her refusal to give straight answers about Social Security, immigration, her White House-era documents and other important issues. They hope to further the perception that she is slippery and overly political.

Rather than rebut her rivals’ charges or confront the issues with facts and details, Clinton accused her rivals of ganging up on her.

She released a cleverly edited video showing rivals John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd uttering her name in rapid-fire succession to the strains of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

The video then cuts to the words, “The Politics of Pile On.”

Her top strategist, Mark Penn, told supporters on a conference call that Clinton needed their help to survive “this six-on-one to try to bring her down.”

In the call, first reported by The Hill newspaper, pollster Penn said he had already detected backlash from female voters.

On Thursday, the senator returned to her all-female alma mater, Wellesley College, and called it a place that taught her to compete “in the all-boys club of presidential politics.”

Clinton’s advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss internal matters, said there is a clear and long-planned strategy to fend off attacks by accusing her male rivals of gathering against her.

The idea is to change the subject while making Clinton a sympathetic figure, especially among female voters who often feel outnumbered and bullied on the job.

As one adviser put it, Clinton is not the first presidential candidate to play the “woe-is-me card” but she’s the first major female presidential candidate to do it.

The victim is a familiar role for Clinton.

In her first run for the Senate, Republican rival Rep. Rick Lazio alienated many women voters when he strode across the stage in their first debate and demanded Clinton sign a pledge banning unregulated contributions known as “soft money” from her campaign.

Analysts considered the confrontation a turning point in the race, generating sympathy for Clinton while making Lazio look like a menacing bully.

Still, her advisers privately concede there is a potential down side to the 2008 woe-is-me strategy: Male and female voters alike want their presidents to be strong — not weak and whining, which is the perception Clinton must be careful to avoid.

The good news for Clinton is that she, unlike many women, has the upper hand.

High name recognition, lots of campaign cash, her husband’s political legacy and her own three decades in public life more than level the playing field — as illustrated by Clinton’s wide lead in national polls.

And this isn’t her first rodeo. Remember, it was Clinton who defined and defied the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and who lashed out — or piled on — critics of her health care reform efforts in the early 1990s.

She has an alternative to the risky piling-on defense. Clinton could undercut her rivals’ criticism by simply coming clean on more issues.

Just what is her stance on drivers’ licenses for immigrants? How would she preserve Social Security? Why would her public views differ from what she says in private?

Why doesn’t she demand that her husband release records from the White House, and donors to his library?

When would she withdraw troops from Iraq? What would cause her to wage war against Iran?

As she told McRae nearly 20 years ago, we oughta get the record straight.


Ron Fournier has covered the Clintons and politics for nearly 20 years.

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