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The Clinton Campaign, By The Book

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, meeting and greeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.(AP).

IOWA CITY, IOWA--Over the weekend, Barack Obama said Hillary Clinton has "run what Washington would call a textbook campaign," but he said that "textbook" was precisely the problem, as he argued that political tactics are less important than the direction in which the candidates would take the country.

Noting the strength of your rival's political operation may not be the way to win, but as she stumped through Iowa the last several days, it seemed Obama was right about one thing: the Clinton team has a very specific plan.

If you're attending an event in Iowa for Clinton, once you get close, dozens of "Hillary" signs line the path. The events, unlike those for many other candidates, usually start on time.

Old or young, man or woman, the Iowan who is designated to introduce Clinton either memorizes or reads from a campaign-prepared text that notes Clinton helped get "health care for six million children," (Clinton was one of the major creators of the State Children's Health Insurance Program that is currently being fought over in Washington) that she's the only candidate talking about "positive change" (an attempt to criticize Obama and John Edwards for attacking Clinton without having the candidate say it herself) and that "if President Bush doesn't in the war in Iraq, she will."

Once the Senator steps onto the raised platform that is always present for her events, she lays out her broad principles, which she says are reforming the government, rebuilding a "strong and prosperous middle class," and restoring American leadership around the world. She then discusses how she will implement these principles, reeling off policy proposals and criticizing what Bush has done on a number of issues. If you heard John Kerry speak in 2004, or have caught any of the Democratic candidates this cycle, you know the gist: energy independence good, No Child Left Behind bad, health care for all, more diplomacy and less war, particularly in Iraq.

Occasionally, her lines are clever. On Bush's diplomatic approach, she said, "Condi Rice goes here, Condi Rice goes there, that is not a foreign policy."

One main difference between the other Democratic candidates and Clinton is her focus on the economy. As she campaigned through Iowa this week and on previous trips, she constantly talked about the problem of middle-class families who have a bit too much income to quality for financial aid from colleges but struggle to pay. She drew loud applause when she criticized how long financial aid applications are and promised to create a form that is only one page. She spoke of how people of modest incomes are prevented from getting health care because they have pre-existing medical conditions, and talked at length of the need for preventive care, noting that people with diabetes often suffer from problems with their feet that could be caught early if they have regular medical check-ups.

When she first started her campaign, Clinton's rhetoric focused, essentially, on restoring her husband's administration, with an emphasis on issues like fiscal responsibility.

Clinton aides were surprised at how much anger about the war dominated the conversation among Democratic voters, so in speeches beginning in the spring, Clinton would detail specific resolutions she had worked on and other actions to oppose the war in Iraq, an issue where she had vulnerabilities. Now, as she has narrowed the differences between herself and her Democratic rivals on that issue, her speech still includes her promise to end the war in Iraq and her critique of Bush's policy there, but also seems targeted for the general election: an emphasis on balancing the budget and getting Americans to save more, not traditional big liberal causes.

Once Clinton finishes her speech, she does something somewhat odd. On Saturday afternoon in Oskaloosa, she said "please don't feel like you have stick around, I know there are chores and other things on a Saturday." That evening, she told a crowd in Indianola that they didn't have to stay and hear questions afterward because "it's Saturday night, if you have better places to go, thank you for being here and have a good night." Appearing in the afternoon at a middle school on Monday in Oelwein, with a crowd that consisted of kids getting to take a break from class and retired people, she said "I know it's the middle of the day and you probably have a lot to do and places to go," so they could skip the question and answer session if they wanted.

Clinton aides say that they usually have crowds in their seats 30 minutes before Clinton arrives, and after she speaks for a half-hour, they want to give people a chance to leave if they want to. Not surprisingly, almost no one chooses to leave the former First Lady and presidential front-runner in the middle of an event.

The questions are the most spontaneous part of these meetings. Clinton was asked about the declining value of the dollar at one event and her view on the state of emergency in Pakistan only hours after it happened after another speech. (Clinton addressed the first question by talking about the importance of fiscal responsibility, while focusing on diplomacy for the later) She is asked about her gender frequently, from queries about her ability to be respected by Muslim leaders if she is president (she says she already has met with some of them) and if the country is ready for a female president (she gave a long list of countries that have had female leaders, but said "I don't think we'll know if America is ready until we try").

Clinton has been sharply confronted during some of the sessions early in the campaign on her vote for the war in Iraq and more recently for a vote on a bill that designated part of Iran's armed forces as a terrorist group. At one event, when a man was given the microphone and said he first wanted to shake Clinton's hand, she looked a bit wary as she walked over to greet him. His query, long in coming, was about high gas prices, which gave Clinton a chance to issue her standard points about the importance of becoming less reliant on oil from the Middle East, tax breaks the Bush administration has allowed for oil companies and even a critique of his rhetoric about war with Iran, which she said might cause gas prices to go up.

Clinton ends each event by talking about her "optimism" about America and the importance of the Iowa caucus. She stays for more than 20 minutes, greeting voters and posing for pictures with anyone who wants them. Then, after the event (or sometimes before it starts), Clinton will meet with 10-20 voters who her campaign has identified as her biggest supporters in an area. Clinton, in a small meeting, asks if these supporters will serve in more formal volunteer roles for Clinton's campaign, such as being leader of the Clinton supporters at their neighborhood's caucus.

--Perry Bacon Jr.

By Washington Post editors  |  November 6, 2007; 11:34 AM ET
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