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It was a blunt question for Hillary Rodham Clinton at the end of a long campaign day. A young man said he knew a lot of people who just didn’t like her, and he wanted to know what she could do about it.
She agreed there are people who will never vote for her. “It breaks my heart, but that is true,” she said, suggesting it’s just part of the game when you stick to your principles. But with two weeks to go to the Iowa caucuses, her campaign is making a bigger effort to confront the nagging matter of her likability and electability.
In recent days, Clinton has begun showing off a softer side — inviting friends, New York constituents and family members to Iowa to speak for her and attest to her warmth, compassion and hearty laugh.
It’s a noticeable change for the New York senator, who has spent most of the campaign emphasizing her toughness — from her muscular views on national security to her stated willingness to “deck” political opponents.
The campaign has launched a new Web site, thehillaryiknow.com, featuring video tributes from people who have known her over the course of her life. Clinton has also retooled her stump speech to be more personally revealing, and appears to have modulated her voice a bit to make it sound smoother and softer.
The effort began last week, when Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, and daughter Chelsea campaigned for the former first lady in Iowa and appeared in new commercials being broadcast in the state.
The issue of personality has bedeviled Clinton throughout her career in public life and carries particular resonance now that she’s locked in a three-way battle in Iowa and trying to close the sale with undecided caucus goers.
“It goes straight to the perception that she is cold, calculating and devoid of human warmth,” said Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “Many Democrats either believe those things are true or they know people who believe them to be true, and that speaks to concerns about her electability.”
Mark Penn, Clinton’s lead strategist and pollster, said her team had always planned to emphasize her personal qualities during the campaign’s closing days. They accelerated the plan after rivals began criticizing her more forcefully, Penn said.
“It’s the result of the attacks that Barack Obama and John Edwards have made on her. So it’s very important for people to understand the full extent of what Hillary’s done and the people she’s helped,” Penn said.
Other advisers said the decision to play up Clinton’s personal side came at the urging of her Iowa team, who felt strongly that caucus goers were familiar with her public record but needed to feel more comfortable with her.
Indeed, in an AP-Yahoo News national poll released last month, just 41 percent of voters said Clinton was likable, compared with 54 percent for Obama and 49 percent for Edwards.
More recently, a CBS News-New York Times poll this month found only 3 percent of Clinton supporters said they back her because she is likable, compared with 26 percent who said it was because she’s married to former President Clinton and 23 percent who said she has the right experience. Eight percent of Obama’s supporters said they chose him because they like him, while 27 percent selected him because of his newness.
For her part, Clinton told reporters Tuesday she had agreed somewhat reluctantly to the new emphasis on her personal side.
“I know people say, ‘We’ve got to know more about her, know more about her personally. It’s not easy for me to talk about myself,” she said.
Husband Bill says he supports the effort to stress her relationships with family and friends.
“I think it’s good to hear from people who really know her as opposed to what others have said about her for more than a dozen years,” he said. “What you’re trying to do here is accelerate a process for Iowa caucus goers that has already happened in New York, in Arkansas, in every place she’s ever lived and worked.”
Her strategists also noted that the personal testimonials carry an important, additional message: They emphasize the changes people say she’s brought their lives, in an election year in which voters say they are seeking a candidate who can bring change to Washington.
Even so, Clinton still has her work cut out for her.
In an interview, 25-year-old grad student David Dickey, the man who asked her the likability-electability question, said it was still a concern — and one reason he might caucus for Obama.
“I like her and I think she’d be a good president. But as a caucus goer, I think we need to get the most electable person,” he said. “I base my decisions on the people I know. A lot of them are independents, and I think it’s important to get them on a Democrat’s side.”
Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.