After watching New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) juggle pointed questions before nearly 1,000 union members here earlier this month, it was easy to imagine how she might pull away from her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. But it also was possible to see how she might stumble on the way.
Senator Clinton's performance at the town hall meeting – part of a series that the AFL-CIO is conducting with the Democratic candidates to help determine whether it will endorse one this fall – was solid but not gripping. She sounded expert on some answers but evasive on others. And she didn't erase all doubts. Yet most people in the crowd were impressed – in ways that suggest that Clinton's early lead in the polls rests on a solid foundation of confidence in her qualifications.
As the first woman to be a serious contender, Clinton might have confronted skepticism about her credibility as commander in chief, especially during wartime. But that's the dog that hasn't barked in the Democratic race. Primarily because of her years as first lady, it appears Democrats view her as more prepared for the presidency than her (male) rivals.
That's evident in national polls comparing Clinton with her top opponents, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll asked Democrats which candidate was the strongest leader, could best handle a crisis, and had the best experience for the presidency. On all three questions, more respondents picked Clinton than Senators Obama and Edwards together. Women preferred her most, but men also favored her on those tests.
Those personal assessments, more than any policy position, buttressed Clinton's support at the town hall meeting, too. Harry Murphy, who organizes for Unite Here, the textile and hotel workers union, said that although Obama "needs to get his feet a little wetter," he believes that Clinton "is tested ... [and] already knows the system." Clinton's admirers see her as not only experienced but tough. Margaret McCormick, a teacher who was visiting from Louisville, Ky., liked Edwards's message but was leaning toward Clinton because "when Hillary's backed into a corner, she does not give an inch." Joe Mazzarese, a United Auto Workers organizer, expressed the thought more pungently: "If I was going to get in a fight, even in a war, I'd want her on my side."
Scars can become marks of distinction, and for those assessing her, some of Clinton's darkest White House moments now add to her character. Mr. Murphy and others saw her failure to overhaul healthcare less as an indication of flawed political judgment than as valuable preparation for a rematch.
Even more striking was this observation from Elaine Crawford, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local that hosted the meeting: After watching Clinton keep her balance during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she's certain Clinton can manage anything the presidency throws at her. "That was a personal glimpse of how she handled herself under tough personal pressure," Ms. Crawford said. "So I wouldn't be afraid of her making those tough decisions for the country."
Clinton also effectively portrayed herself as a fighter for those in need – an argument that resonated especially with the blue-collar women listening. And she benefited from residual good feelings about her husband's presidency among Democrats, drawing applause at almost every reference to the 1990s.
Yet Clinton still excels more at the prose than the poetry of politics; there was more energy in the room when she arrived than when she left. Several in the crowd worried about whether she can win a general election – partly because they doubt that America will elect a woman, but mostly because they fear that Republicans will reprise scandal allegations against both Clintons.
Some of these activists also questioned whether she (and her husband) sufficiently represent the party's liberal base. Usually that sentiment manifests in skepticism about her stance on Iraq, but here it translated into a barbed question about her service, from 1986 to 1992, on Wal-Mart's board of directors.
The most worrisome sign for Clinton at the meeting was her own caution. Asked whether she would support higher automotive fuel economy standards – an overdue idea that the autoworkers have joined the auto companies in fighting – Clinton implied that she would, but never directly answered. Nor, while talking tough on trade, did she acknowledge how much the American auto companies' miscalculations have contributed to their decline. Both answers contrasted badly with Obama, who, during a recent Detroit speech, forthrightly endorsed better fuel economy and chastised the companies for building too many cars that consumers disdained.
With such timidity, Clinton risks sharpening one of her detractors' best weapons – the charge that calculation, not conviction, is her compass. Front-runners dislike risk, but in her case, the riskiest move might be playing it safe.
• Ronald Brownstein is the national affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times. ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.