Democratic voters unsure about Clinton's vision

In focus -- politics


Philadelphia -- When she began her presidential run, Hillary Clinton asked Americans to give her a fresh look.

"I may be the most famous woman you don't really know," the New York senator and former first lady said repeatedly.

Implied in that remark was that she'd somehow be revealing more about herself as a presidential candidate that would cast her in a more favorable light.

But if the polls and the view of one group of Democratic primary voters are any indication, she has more work to do.

Many Democrats still have questions about Clinton, her character and whether she has a vision for the country. She has yet to draw a clear line with her rivals on issues that matter most to voters.

At the same time, Democrats appear to have few doubts about her toughness, intellect or ability to do the job of president. And even those backing other candidates are willing to support her.

But her main challenger, Sen. Barack Obama, is perceived in a far more positive, almost gauzy, way. If his candidacy takes off when the primaries begin, less than a month from now, it could spell trouble for Clinton, since a compressed campaign calendar leaves little time for voters to learn much that's new about the candidates.

Given that, wouldn't it be great to be a fly on the wall, before you had to choose, so you could see the real Hillary Clinton?

That question was put to a racially and economically diverse group of 11 Democratic primary voters here the other evening by Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, on behalf the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, during a two-hour discussion in a downtown office tower.

Andrew Alebergo of Philadelphia, who is leaning toward John Edwards, said he'd like to see Clinton "approach a problem without polls ... because I want to know her own vision and her own leadership skills. ... I don't think I know the woman at all."

There was silence around the table when the moderator asked if anyone thought they knew what Clinton's vision was.

Finally, a supporter spoke in her defense.

"I think that she's walking a fine tightrope right now, because she is such a divisive personality" said Lynda Connelly, 58, a manager with the Red Cross. "I think most people know what Hillary's all about. All they have to do is really look at her record."

Other responses to the fly-on-the-wall question were more personal.

"I would like very much to be there, just with she and Bill alone, because I think it's going to be something that's going to very much be in the back of a lot of people's minds: Why did she stay? Why didn't she leave?" said Romayne Sachs, 77, a retired school administrator and Clinton supporter. She said she assumes it is a strong "partnership of some kind" but not in a negative way.

Her backers in the room described Clinton in pragmatic terms: as the most electable and experienced Democrat. Someone who shared their views. Her thick skin inspired confidence that she could do the job,, even from those who don't support her.

"When things are difficult, She'll be able to weather the storm," said Alebergo, 39, who owns a tanning salon with his wife. "She won't be on the podium stuttering, like some other people we know."

He said he doesn't have any problems "with Hillary herself," but fears that her election would revive the bitter partisanship of the 1990s and bring Washington to a grinding halt.

"I just think it'll be poison for the country," Alebergo said.

There was acceptance, rather than enthusiasm, from backers of other candidates when the moderator asked: Suppose you woke up, Rip Van Winkle-like, next September and learned that she was the Democratic nominee.

Obama supporter Ali Lowrey, 30, said she'd be "indifferent." Another Obama voter, Chris Haig, said he'd be "suspicious" about how she had won. His distrust of the government, which "she's so embroiled in," had let him to back a candidate who was "completely different," he said.

The prospect of Obama's nomination drew a more positive response, with even Clinton backers seeing it as good for the country. But there was also disbelief, reflecting a deep skepticism, particularly among African-Americans, that the country was ready to vote for a black president.

"I'd be so shocked," said Venetta Allen, 55. "It's not going to happen." She would prefer to vote for Obama but had concluded that "he's not going to win, and Hillary is my next choice."

Another African-American voter, Cheryl Ewing, supports Obama, even though she's convinced he won't win because too many voters won't let a black person "dominate."

"Bottom line," said the 47-year-old travel manager, "the country is racist, and no matter what this man does and how intelligent he is, they don't want to see a black man become president."

In another window into how they see the contenders, the voters were asked to describe, in one word, what kind of boss they thought the two candidates would make.

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