Hillary Clinton’s Iowa reset: Is it enough – Politico
DES MOINES, Iowa — After impressing Iowa Democratic activists with a stern tongue-lashing of Republicans at Friday night’s famous Wing Ding fundraiser, Hillary Clinton took a step out of her comfort zone to try to win the hearts of the Hawkeye State’s vital voters.
She walked out into the crowd of 2,000 politically savvy Iowans and seated herself a few rows back from the stage, listening to other candidates give stump speeches like she was an ordinary attendee. And when the fundraiser finished, and people swarmed to meet her, she took a few minutes to mingle, even signing a few autographs for awestruck fans.
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But then she disappeared behind a makeshift black curtain walling off a corner of the ballroom. Fans pushed up against the veil, trying to get a peak of the 2016 Democratic front-runner. But her security detail held them back, allowing only a handful to enter and see the hidden candidate before she left, leaving a swarm of disappointed voters who didn’t get a handshake.
During a two-day sweep of this key early-voting state, Clinton made good on a promise to be more down-to-earth and increase her face-to-face interaction with Average Joes. At the Iowa State Fair Saturday, she mingled with strangers, took more than 40 pictures with fans and embraced the crowds she so often avoids. At her side was former Sen. Tom Harkin, whose endorsement last week came after a rough run of headlines about her private email account.
It’s part of an intentional Clinton campaign effort to win support in a state that rejected her last time she ran for the White House in part because they felt she put on airs, snubbing Iowans who are used to — and expect — up-close-and-personal meetings with presidential wannabes.
The question is whether Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vintage is different and better enough to overcome the growing questions about her candidacy.
While many Iowa Democrats praised her for a notable change in strategy, interviews with dozens of others showed she still has some work to do if she wants to win the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Many liberals are still skeptical that she’s actually one of them. Others say she needs to do more rallies or open up invite-only, small-group events to wider audiences who yearn to know Hillary, the person. And there’s real interest among Democrats about a possible late entry into the race: Vice President Joe Biden.
Case in point: Jackie Crawford, whose brother Jerry is a major Iowan fixer for the Clintons. She chatted with Clinton at the Iowa State Fair about horse racing — a passion her brother shares with his buddy Bill Clinton — but after the masses following Clinton moved on, she said there’s no doubt Clinton could do more to win.
“I think it’d be good to get her out more in larger groups … more question-and-answer,” she said, adding that she’ll back Clinton — “unless Joe should run.”
It’s a sign that Clinton still has some work to do. Although she leads her most competitive Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders by at least 20 percentage points, the Vermont senator, a darling of the left, is gaining ground and wooing potential supporters.
And if Biden jumps into the race, her odds here look even worse. Numerous Iowans told POLITICO they adore his devil-may-care personality and would welcome him throwing his hat into the ring — some because of the email controversy plaguing Clinton in Washington, D.C.
“I’m all in” on Biden, said J.R. Ackley, the former two-time mayor and city councilman of a 300-population northern Iowa town called Marble Rock. “I think Hillary’s going to be bogged down by a lot of this Benghazi stuff.”
A nervous Clinton campaign is leaving nothing to chance. Her third-place finish here in 2008 was a huge blow to the woman who was, then as now, the assumed nominee. She went on to battle Barack Obama well into the spring, but in some ways never recovered from losing Iowa. Obama’s stance against the Iraq war was surely a major factor behind Clinton’s defeat, but her campaign has clearly accepted the conventional wisdom in Iowa that her imperial, coronate-me-now style of 2008 played a large role.
They’ve beefed up their Iowa-based staff, begun a massive volunteer organizing effort and put together a number of small group events and roundtables. And moves like Clinton’s carefully spontaneous ‘Scooby Doo van ride’ in April went over vastly better than anything she did here in 2008.
So far, it’s working — at least with some Iowans.
Richard Paxson, who sits on the Cerro Gordo County Democratic committee, said she’s changed.
“I was at a house meeting that Hillary had in Mason City, and there were about 100 people there, and she took the time to meet and visit with every single person in the room,” said Paxson, who voted for Obama in 2008. “I found that very impressive.”
After her Wing Ding speech Friday night, Steve Jules, an event organizer, approached this reporter waving a picture of Hillary he had taken months ago — that she had just signed for him minutes ago. He looked like a giddy child who had just been handed a cookie, grinning from ear to ear: “Fantastic!”
John Colombo, another event organizer, said that moments like these show “the campaign learned from the mistakes of 2007.”
“This time around it’s a completely different candidate,” he said in an interview just before the chicken wing fundraiser Friday, donned in a red, white and blue Uncle Sam suit for the occasion. “We’re Iowans. We like to meet people… to shake their hand and actually know who they are. I don’t think that she really understood that about us then, but this year… they’re defiantly running a better campaign — a lot more personal.”
Supporters say she’s listening, too. Colombo, for example, said he had asked her several months ago at a private event to talk about trade programs in education — then saw her bring up that very issue in a speech two weeks later.
Clinton often notes such efforts to be responsive, as she did during a gaggle with reporters at the Iowa State Fair Saturday, saying she recently started looking at mental health policy after someone in Iowa had asked her to do so: “I want to have this continuing conversation about what’s on the minds of Iowans and Americans and I will fight as hard as I can to earn every vote.”
During the fair, reporters witnessed her stepping out, too. While Clinton is notorious for avoiding big crowds, she walked around the fairgrounds talking to anyone who approached her or asked to snap a picture. An Iowa mother with a daughter on her deathbed pleaded with her to make medical marijuana legal nationally — Clinton took her contact info down. A young boy introduced her to his show cow. All of that seemed to go over well.
But there’s still a left-leaning crowd here in Iowa who’s not so sure about her.
“I like her, but I don’t like her,” said Leslie Johnson, a few feet away from the fair’s famous “soapbox,” which Clinton notably avoided Saturday. “I don’t trust her.”
A lot of their distrust has to do with policy. Multiple people in the crowd of several hundred that came out to hear Clinton’s competitor Bernie Sanders speak noted disapprovingly that she hadn’t weighed in on the trade pacts that recently split President Obama from the rest of his party. Or the creation of the Keystone pipeline that liberals here believe will crush the environment. They don’t like that she’s friendly with Wall Street, either.
“The progressive wing doesn’t feel like she stands up enough,” said Nathan Riggle of Des Moines, a 20-something who worked for the Obama campaign in 2008 and is currently undecided. If he had to bet, he’d put his money on Sanders winning Iowa. “She’s just more conservative than we’d like her to be.”
But it’s more than just the issues. It’s access too.
“She didn’t show up here for the Des Moines Register soapbox,” said Iowan Charlie Aherm, who wore a Sanders shirt and stood outside of a line-dancing tent at the fair. He complained that Clinton was “too professional” and too closed off. “I don’t know where she is. I heard that she was here today but I didn’t see her.”
Larry Dunn, an Iowa Democrat who’s leaning toward Sanders, was bitter about not being invited to private events Clinton has held here in Iowa.
“When she was here two months, she had a private party,” he complained.
“The public wasn’t invited,” his wife Deb added aghast. “Bernie’s been making himself available … anybody could come.”
Tory Fellner, who is undecided on a candidate, said she wants to back Hillary but is not impressed with her accessibility. While she’s already seen Sanders at three public events, she’s yet to meet Clinton in person.
“Bernie is out there stumping, and I understand that she’s a little more reserved, but I think she needs to put herself out there,” said Iowan Tory Fellner, who had a plate of pulled pork on her lap at the Wing Ding event Friday. “I understand she’s all over the country, and you can only be in one place at a time, but in Iowa we have an expectation that we get to meet these people [who run] … and I’m waiting for Hillary.” she said.
Standing next to a horde of chanting Martin O’Malley supporters in Clear Lake Friday afternoon, Daryl Kothenbeutel predicted that Sanders will be the Obama of 2008, soon overtaking Clinton in the polls and driving on to win the state for the left.
“He’s already ahead in New Hampshire,” he noted. Clinton “has too much baggage.”
John Stone, the Cerro Gordo County Democratic Chairman, said it’s certainly possible. Though he backed Clinton over Obama last time around, he said he’s holding his cards closely.
“I’ve seen people picked as the winner in the caucus beforehand, but we’ve got about six months to go and a lot can happen,” he said.