Can Hillary Overcome Her Likability Gap?

Some grudges just don't die. In the 1990s, David Bossie worked tirelessly as an investigator for Rep. Dan Burton's government-reform committee. Burton was a top-echelon antagonist to Bill and Hillary Clinton, leading wide-ranging investigations of Whitewater and campaign finance. All the digging didn't amount to much: six years after the Clintons left the White House, Burton is a little-heard-from member of the minority party and Hillary Clinton is the front runner to be the Democrats' nominee for president in 2008.

But Bossie is still working away. In recent months, he has returned to investigating the Clintons, this time for a tough documentary scheduled for release in theaters this fall. One of the documentary's key potential audiences: a new generation of voters who don't remember the old Clinton wars. He points out that someone who is 18 today was "4 years old when the travel-office scandal broke." These young voters, he predicts, will be hungry for Hillary dirt, new and old. "There's an enormous market for Hillary Clinton information," he tells NEWSWEEK. Other inveterate Hillary hounders agree. R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the editor of The American Spectator who has authored multiple books on what he sees as the Clintons' sins, says there are "active research teams" looking into the New York senator. "They're out there," Tyrrell tells NEWSWEEK. "I get calls all the time."

If Clinton is worried about the new dirt-digging efforts, she isn't showing it. When two much-anticipated biographies dropped into bookstores last week, her campaign dismissed them as "old news" and "cash for rehash." Indeed, while the books provide detailed, often harsh, accounts of Clinton's White House and Senate career, they lack sexy details about Hillary, her husband and their marriage.

For all the charges through the years, none has ever stuck. Arguably the most-investigated woman in contemporary American life moved from tabloid target in the White House to winning a Senate seat in one of the nation's most contentious states. It's her resilience and capacity to survive and thrive against all comers that partly fuels the haters' fury.

But there is some evidence to suggest that even old news can still hurt. The Hillary detractors' image of the candidate—secretive, controlling and paranoid—springs from the way she acted while under attack in the '90s. In a Gallup poll released last week, 50 percent said their opinion of the former First Lady was unfavorable. (Forty-six percent said they had a favorable view.) The "negative" is unprecedented for a non-incumbent presidential candidate—neither John Kerry nor Al Gore got such a high unfavorable rating in the Gallup poll at any point in their unsuccessful presidential bids. Clinton's camp notes that other recent polls have not shown unfavorables as high as the Gallup number and says it is confident her favorables will increase as the campaign goes on. But the real problem many Democratic voters have with Clinton is the sneaking suspicion that with so much of the country against her, she can never win a general election. Clinton's fate may well come down to her ability to deal with a vexing question: what is it about me that so many people don't like?

The answer has eluded both Clinton and her husband throughout their three decades in the arena. They began their national political lives with a miscalculation—the idea that America was ready for a new kind of empowered, ambitious political spouse who would be "two for the price of one," in Bill's phrase. The country, however, didn't take to Hillary, especially after she bragged that she'd pursued a career when she could have "stayed home to bake cookies and have teas."

Installed in Washington, Hillary morphed into a comic-book villain for her detractors—a man-eating feminist, they claimed, who allegedly threw lamps at her husband, communed psychically with Eleanor Roosevelt and lit a White House Christmas tree adorned with sex toys. The narrative of depravity—a tissue of inventions by conservatives—was often hard to follow. Was she, as they imagined her, a secret lesbian who fostered a West Wing culture of rampant homosexuality? Or was she the duplicitous adulteress who slept with former law partner Vincent Foster, ordered his death and then made it look like a suicide? Disjointed as they may have been, Hillary horror tales soon became big business on talk radio—"That's Why the First Lady Is a Tramp" was a Clinton-era hit from Don Imus. In the 1996 election, a direct-mail company sold a Hillary Haters list with close to 30,000 names to groups advocating conservative causes.

Still, the anti-Hillary industry has never managed to bring down Hillary herself—in fact, the more they have attacked, the higher she has risen. In the 2000 New York Senate race, her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, sent out six-word fund-raising letters: "I am running against Hillary Clinton." It seemed like a smart strategy—Hillary's policy positions were largely in sync with Blue New York, but her unfavorable ratings in early Senate polls were sky high. By logging long hours in each of the state's 62 counties, however, Clinton essentially managed to say, "Enough about me," so frequently that New Yorkers—particularly independent women—were willing to change the subject. She won with 55 percent of the vote.

Now, Clinton's campaign is working to adapt the New York model for a national audience. Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, says he is confident Clinton's negatives will decrease as voters get to know her for more than just her White House-era caricature. "I take people all the time and say, 'How many of you know where she was born?' " Penn says. "Almost nobody does." Following a template they designed in her two Senate races, Clinton's aides have launched teams of women in key early states who approach her skeptics with tailored talking points. First, they underscore that Hillary would be prepared to serve as commander in chief on day one of her presidency. Next, they talk up her record in the Senate. Then they switch to something personal—if their target has a child with autism, they underscore Hillary's leadership in the Senate on the issue.

But Clinton's problems go beyond perfecting her personal touch. In polls, she lags significantly with independents, a group that mistrusts establishment candidates. Independents could prove crucial in early-primary states with open contests like California and South Carolina. In New Hampshire, where independent crossover voters have historically helped fresh-faced candidates upset front runners, Barack Obama could compete with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani for anti-establishment votes. "You're out there trying to create a sense of electability and your negatives are 52 percent," says one Democratic consultant, who asked not to be named questioning Clinton's strengths. "That's a tough case to make."

It may get tougher now that Republicans are tuning back in to the Bill and Hillary show. In recent weeks, McCain, Giuliani and Mitt Romney have each amped up their attacks on Clinton, mindful that nothing riles up the Republican base like Clinton-bashing. Even Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention, who has decried the lack of socially conservative candidates in the Republican primary field, acknowledges that the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency would "unite social conservatives around a candidate who might not be totally acceptable to them." After 12 divisive years, Hillary may at last be a uniter, though perhaps not the kind she'd imagined.

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