Report from Iowa: Hill-o-rama

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The brand-new Hillary Clinton presidential campaign already feels like a White House operation. Even in a state where voters pride themselves on a famously blase attitude toward people who think they want to be President, she counts as a celebrity. On Saturday, the campaign booked a school gymnasium that could fit 1,800 for her first big public rally. An additional 800 showed up, despite single-digit temperatures, and had to see it from an overflow room. While she was talking to a small group at a meeting at the Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, I encountered a mother and son outside who were holding a copy of a TIME Magazine cover that I had written about her in 1997. Turns out they had driven all the way from Omaha, and were willing to stand in the weather (have I mentioned it’s cold here?) for more than an hour, just to have her autograph it. Following her every move are four television network crews–from Japan.

And the crowds are giddy. One woman felt compelled to confide–to Hillary and 2,600 other people–that she is going through menopause, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with her question about education. One man concluded his question by adding: “By the way, we in America love you, and I think you look very nice.”

She’s getting a chance to show off her famous mastery of policy, but offering little by way of specific answers. On everything from health care to No Child Left Behind to nuclear power, her answer is a variation of the one she offered to a question about trade: “We’re going to come up with a new approach, and any ideas I am more than open to.” Interestingly, the only time she was asked about Iraq at her public rally, she wiffed and offered an answer about veterans health care. Her campaign said she misunderstood the question. At other stops, where the audiences were restricted, she offered her standard response: that she wouldn’t have voted in favor of the invasion, if she had known what she knows now, which is not quite the same as opposing the war.

Senator Clinton keeps promising the voters she is meeting (and she’s meeting a lot of them–she stayed nearly an hour past the end of the Des Moines rally, just to shake hands) that all the hoopla will die down. Eventually, Clinton vows, she will be able to do this “the Iowa way,” in individual living rooms, coffee shops, church basements and union halls. And at some point, she will have to. After all, for all the excitement she generates, Clinton is still anywhere from second to fourth in polls here.

SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: In an appearance in Davenport this morning (originally scheduled for a diner, but moved to a 4-H barn at the county fairgrounds to accommodate the crowd), HRC was asked how she would end the war. She cited many of the ideas she has talked about before: phased withdrawal, capping the number of troops, cutting off money to the Iraqi security forces if the Baghdad government doesn’t shape up. She also repeated that she would not support cutting off money for the war. However, she was as forceful as I have heard her in calling on Bush for a resolution, saying essentially that this is his problem to fix. “The President has said this is going to be left to his successor,” she said, and called that the “height of irresponsibility.” She added he should “extricate our country before he leaves office.”