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.
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.)
The senator's religious references drew "amens" and applause from the crowd but shied away from explicitly Christian language. Clinton appeared most comfortable when ticking off points in her stump speech, including universal health care coverage, energy conservation, and the war in Iraq. On the last point, the senator charged Bush with waging a "reckless and preemptive" war and pledged to be "tough but smart" if she's elected president.
Clinton segued from talk of being tough to asking a question she'll have to answer over the next year: "Can a woman be president?" The query solicited the most enthusiastic cheers of the morning, with many jumping to their feet and waving campaign signs. Clinton said the great thing about America is that "anybody can be president" and asserted with outstretched arms, "I'm proud to be a woman." But, she quickly added, "I'm not running as a woman. I'm running because I believe I'm the most qualified person for the job."
The crowd cheered on all points, but the speech revealed that the senator is grappling with how to play the "woman card"-and how not to play it. She must juggle tension between three groups: those who like the idea of a woman president, those who find her too austere, and those who fear that a woman won't be tough enough to stand up to enemies who maintain a low regard for women. Early on, she's adopted a strategy that uses tough language to speak about the war in Iraq, but softer language like "Let's chat" and "I want to listen" to characterize her campaign.
For Elaine Kinlaw, the strategy is working. Kinlaw, a 29-year-old college student from Columbia, stood in the bleachers after Clinton's speech, watching the senator shake hands with a clamoring crowd. Kinlaw told WORLD that she's "definitely leaning toward Hillary" and said she likes the idea of a woman president: "It gives all women, black and white, the confidence and hope that we can stand up and meet challenges."
Outside in the crowded lobby, Cori Cantey said she hasn't made up her mind yet, but that she liked what she heard from Clinton. She added that a woman could bring unique qualities to the office, like "more compassion," but acknowledged standing up to terrorists would be a tall order: "It's just an uphill battle she's going to have to face."
Clinton is undoubtedly poised for a battle and is gaining ground with another key group of voters in South Carolina: minorities. During her recent visit, Clinton said state officials should remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, a position popular with black voters in the state. In a January ABC News poll, Clinton led Obama among black voters 60 percent to 20 percent.
Two prominent black leaders who helped local Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards win the state's primary in 2004 have switched support to Clinton. State Sen. Darrell Jackson said he's endorsing Clinton because she's the only Democrat who can win the state. But Jackson's endorsement is tainted with controversy: Shortly after announcing his support for Clinton last month, Jackson acknowledged that his public-relations firm had signed a $10,000 a month contract with the Clinton campaign for consulting work.
Jackson, also senior pastor of the predominantly black, 7,000-member Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, insists the contract didn't influence his endorsement, saying he turned down more lucrative offers from other candidates. Clinton also denied that her campaign traded money for Jackson's endorsement.
At a Sunday morning service at Bible Way Church the day before Clinton's visit to South Carolina, an associate pastor announced that Clinton's camp had named Jackson state director of her campaign. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the congregation erupted into wild applause.
One of the state's most powerful black Democrats, Rep. James Clyburn, majority whip of the U.S. House, said he wouldn't endorse a presidential candidate for the 2008 primary. But when Clinton appeared at a Charleston, S.C., tribute to Clyburn on Presidents Day evening, the representative urged Clinton to make history as the first woman president: "Run, Hillary, run!"