Give 'em Hillary
Jubilant campaign rallies showed she could win sympathy. Results showed she can also win elections
By John Cloud/Washington
Hello, this is Hillary Clinton," gurgles your answering machine. And it really is Hillary, no joke, asking you to vote Democratic in last week's elections. She wasn't quite so tireless that she actually phoned individual voters, but she came close. That phone message--left automatically on thousands of machines across the nation--was just one of 100 phone scripts and radio spots she recorded. She also banked millions at some 50 fund raisers and spoke at 34 rallies, blasting through 10 states in the final days like a madwoman.
We all thought a woman who has loved Bill Clinton would dramatically influence the midterms, and we were right. It just wasn't Monica. Most people might have gone into therapy or hiding after what Hillary suffered this year. She tore up the campaign trail instead. The operative analogy best describing her ceased to be Tammy Wynette. It became something more like Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
And she delivered. Of course, not every candidate she stumped for won--but well over half did, many in squeakers. "Her impact was electric," says Hank Morris, a consultant who helped Democrat Charles Schumer beat Alfonse D'Amato in New York. "We trended up every time she was here." Hillary roped in $1 million for Schumer and $1.6 million for Barbara Boxer, who won a close Senate race in California. She played a key role in Tom Vilsack's last-minute shocker over former G.O.P. Congressman Jim Lightfoot in the Iowa Governor's race. The Vilsack campaign crested when Hillary was there. "The polls were showing a dead heat, and then she brought this burst of enthusiasm," says David Axelrod, a Vilsack operative.
She helped in part because her almost evangelical rallies made great TV. In Illinois, "she got more free media than both Senate candidates," marvels Tony Podesta, campaign manager for Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. Some folks came out of loyalty; others exhibited a daytime-talk-show curiosity about the Hillary Calvary. In any event, her speeches were crammed. In San Francisco two weeks ago, Boxer's people booked a room for 600 for Hillary. Double that number showed up (and they paid to see her). A Rhode Island group tarried four hours to hear and cheer her. In California, Hillary's phone message startled many of the women who got home from work to hear it (the Boxer campaign targeted 775,000 women with phone banks). Some who then went to see her at public events would shriek, "I got a message from you at home!"
Nationally, Hillary's approval ratings have never been so high--up to 70%, double the level they reached after the health-care fiasco and the reports of her cosmic communing with Eleanor Roosevelt. So how did she suddenly become the most powerful politician in America? For one thing, she turned out to be right on some key issues. Republicans and reporters mocked her when she began the year charging that the President was the victim of "a vast right-wing conspiracy." But as the plotters crawled out onto the stage, the phrase started to ring true to some. Later, as paperback versions of the Starr report described the precise topography of her husband's infidelity, she focused not on the humiliation but on how to get out from under it. Privately, she fueled a fight-back strategy against Kenneth Starr. Publicly, she defined poise. Politics, she told crowd after crowd, remains a noble pursuit. Her silence about her inner life reinforced a public-private boundary the public was beginning to feel had frayed too much.
That's the fluffy stuff, but there was a gritty truth too: Hillary could help rescue her party and husband in part because she was nearly untouchable. Handlers kept nettlesome reporters away. Even the most acrid G.O.P. candidates couldn't hit her too hard after her visits. Her pain spoke silently to too many voters. "She can talk to the most sought-after swing voters, which are women," says Axelrod in Iowa. Boxer got 60% of the women's vote in California.
O.K., yes, it's important not to overstate the significance of an outsider swooping in for rubber chicken and applause. Hillary's multiple Chicago appearances couldn't save Moseley-Braun from G.O.P. challenger Peter Fitzgerald, and she wasn't invited to help Democrat John Edwards knock over Senator Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina, where most voters shudder at the name Clinton. But an endorsement by the Pope probably wouldn't have re-elected scandal-plagued Moseley-Braun. And one of Hillary's most loathed targets fell: she had zapped Whitewater chairman D'Amato as "a Jesse Helms clone."
Could her success this year push her into a race of her own? She says she has no such plans. But the ecstatic crowds in Chicago leave Podesta wondering: "There's no doubt in my mind she could beat Peter Fitzgerald in 2004."
--Reported by Jay Branegan/Washington
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