While her marriage continues to be front-page news in her adopted home state, Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't have to field a single menacing question in her first Internet town hall meeting. The event, hosted by women's Web site iVillage, made little reference to Clinton's husband and didn't once touch "that woman" or the scandal that finally brought her a measure of public empathy.
On the contrary, questions from moderator Nancy Evans played directly to Clinton's strengths, probing her ideas about "kitchen table" issues like health care reform, education, poverty and family friendly business practices. Evans read questions e-mailed from iVillage readers to Clinton. Their conversation was broadcast live via RealAudio on the Net.
Clinton kept the meeting from degenerating into a rah-rah sisterhood session by giving policy-rich responses that showed off her new Empire State expertise. Her proposed solutions to the state's rural economic blight closely mirrored the "new" Democrat policies that have always worked for Bill: shunning Big Government programs in favor of public-private partnerships, improving worker training and showering businesses with tasty tax incentives.
Clinton also took a hard-line stand on the tricky issue of school vouchers, stating her absolute opposition to any shifts of public funds to private schools. Though this position is a sure winner with teachers unions, it's perceived to be a weakness in the traditionally unshakable alliance between the Democratic Party and urban minority voters. Locally, it doomed the once cozy relationship between Clinton's opponent, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and recently dismissed New York school chief Rudy Crew.
For the most part, however, the discussion steered clear of the parochial intrigues common in New York politics. The official chat also turned a deaf ear to many of Clinton's missteps. No one asked about her stance on Palestinian autonomy or her clumsy handling of a meeting with Suha Arafat last November. Another gaffe that went unmentioned was her husband's release of radical Puerto Rican nationalists, an action that many administration critics attacked as a ploy to lure Latino voters to Clinton's camp.
Yet some of her more obvious weaknesses couldn't be overlooked. Evans brought up a recent Marist poll showing that Clinton's support among white women plummeted from 51 percent to 36 percent over the last year. She also questioned Clinton about the polarized voter response to her campaign and the contention of some New Yorkers that she is a carpetbagger. Hillary owned up to having a long way to go in putting the "opportunist" label to rest.
"Those are very legitimate questions," she said. Earlier in the chat, however, Clinton sounded as if her Senate run had been a command performance. "When New Yorkers started talking to me about running for the Senate, I was certainly honored and a little flattered, but I really had to think hard about whether it was the right decision," Clinton said. She decided to run only "after many months of soul-searching and listening and learning about what was on the minds of New Yorkers, I concluded that the issues that I've worked on for my lifetime were issues that are going to be important [to the state]."
But the talk wasn't all about important issues. As in any public election forum, the candidate's personal side also goes on display. Evans wrapped up the discussion with softballs about Clinton's schedule, her intentions for a future White House run, and even a discussion about her new hairstyle. (It gets a thumbs-up from Nancy Connelly of New Jersey.)
That led to the moderator giving a speech that would be fitting for any Barbra Streisand movie, but permissible only in this "no-boys-allowed" political arena. "Stereotypes were that if you were brainy you be beautiful, and if you were beautiful, you couldn't have a brain," Evans said. "You've always had brains, and now you're beautiful. When did you say to yourself 'OK, I'm gonna look good'?"
After some giggles and a few words about confidence in response, Clinton was ready for her ultimate close up. When Evans read the last e-mail, sent by an unnamed woman in Ohio, you could almost hear "Wind Beneath My Wings" rising in the background. "I just wanted to tell you that I admire you, and think that you are one of the inspirational women of the 21st century." Clinton graciously thanked Evans and offered a repeat performance anytime.
If the official chat remained gentle, morning-after responses on iVillage's message board were not so universally supportive. "What has she ever done for us?" one Rudy fan wrote. "She only became interested in NY when a senate vacancy appeared." Others wrote darkly of collusion between iVillage and the Clinton administration and warned "the wicked one from the south is on the move again."
Another vast conspiracy? Stay tuned. The next guest in the iVillage Townhall Tuesdays series is yet to be announced.