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Feminine touch

Politics | A campaign stop in battleground South Carolina shows Hillary Clinton grappling with how to play the 'woman card'-and how not to play it

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

COLUMBIA, S.C.- During her husband's first presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton infamously proclaimed that she pursued a career instead of staying home and baking cookies. Late last month, during the first Southern stop in her own presidential campaign, the New York senator reminisced about her childhood and quoted lyrics to a Girl Scout song.

What a difference a presidential bid makes.

Clinton's early campaign swing through South Carolina on Feb. 19 revealed that the senator is determined to do two things: gain early traction with key voters, and finesse thorny issues like faith, war, and a woman in the White House.

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The morning started early on Presidents Day for thousands in Columbia, S.C., who lined up in below-freezing temperatures outside the Allen University gymnasium for a seat at Clinton's town-hall-style event. But Clinton wasn't the first Democratic presidential hopeful to visit South Carolina over the holiday weekend.

Three days earlier, Sen. Barack Obama held court for nearly 3,000 supporters at a rally in the politically important state. South Carolina will hold the nation's fourth presidential primary next January. Winning the early contest is key to building momentum for the slate of primaries to follow.

Clinton's visit was well-planned to reach two key blocs of voters: women and minorities. Nearly 60 percent of voters in the state's 2004 Democratic presidential primary were women. About 50 percent were black. So it made sense for Clinton to campaign at Allen University, a black, liberal arts college in the inner city. Mostly women filled the packed gym.

The senator could have picked Benedict College, a much larger black school two blocks away. But Allen University captured another important demographic: religious voters. The university bills itself as a Christian school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

At 9:30, the crowd began pouring through the school's gym doors and patiently funneling through a single metal detector. A vendor stood near the lobby's front door selling campaign buttons attached to a tall board. One bore a picture of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the slogan: "Axis of Evil." Another boasted a picture of Bill Clinton with the title: "First Gentleman."

Inside the gymnasium, people crowded into several rows of folding chairs on the gym floor and packed onto long rows of blue bleachers on a far wall. Big blue banners hanging around the room proclaimed: "South Carolina Welcomes Hillary for President."

In the center of the room, a rectangular platform stood 2 feet high, draped with a blue banner reading, "Hillary." Campaign workers hung television lights from the ceiling, casting a bright glow on the platform and crowd. Aides in sharp suits scurried around the room, furiously punching keys on BlackBerrys and barely looking up.

By 10 a.m., some 2,100 people filled the gym, with another 600 in an overflow room. The school's 20-piece percussion band warmed up the audience, and volunteers moved through the crowd, handing out small "Hillary" campaign signs that the audience waved for television cameras.

A half-hour later, a student sang the national anthem, and the crowd remained on its feet, clapping and swaying as the upbeat song "Life is a Highway" followed on the PA system. Some hung over the sides of the bleachers straining to see Clinton appear as anticipation grew.

Finally, a deep-voiced announcer asked the crowd to welcome "the next president of the United States." The audience erupted into wild applause as Clinton appeared through a side door, waving and smiling while a 1990s rock song by alternative band Jesus Jones blared: "Right here, right now / There is no other place I want to be. Right here, right now / Watching the world wake up from history."

Clinton sprung onto the platform in the center of the room, enthusiastically waving to each section of the crowd and basking in the cheers. After an invocation from Columbia pastor Brenda Kneece-a supporter of the "Clergy Letter Project," an initiative that urges public schools to teach Darwinism as fact-Clinton told the crowd, "We need to work with the entire community, including the faith-based community and elected officials."

She later spoke of the need for soldiers to be equipped "with the full armor of God, which is their faith" after an audience member brought up the biblical reference in a question. (Clinton has drawn fire from military advocacy groups for campaign ads that blast the Bush administration for failing to "up-armor" Humvees in Iraq-a situation now largely remedied but blamed by Pentagon spokesmen on Clinton-era budget cuts.)

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