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Clinton radiates charm in opening campaign in Iowa Focuses on reasons for presidential bid

The reintroduction of the most famous woman in the world, which started in cyberspace a week ago, got up close and personal Saturday as a relaxed and smiling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton held a campaign "conversation" with 1,500 Iowans in a high school gymnasium.

Beginning a historic run for the nation's highest office which her husband held for eight years Clinton made sure her first big campaign appearance was as warm and fuzzy as her online chats with voters last week.

For an hour, she answered questions on health care, education and other issues of interest to the crowd, consisting predominantly of women. She stayed another 45 minutes to sign autographs and shake hands.

"It's just amazing. Look at her," said Barbara Tilley, 61, of rural Carroll, about 100 miles northwest of Des Moines. "It's unusual to see such warmth and such a personal approach in a candidate."

Such words would no doubt thrill the Clinton campaign, which remains haunted by polls that show 40 percent of Americans have a negative view of the New York senator, often criticized for being a less-compelling campaigner than her husband.

Saturday, though, she was downright Oprah-like, walking leisurely around a small platform and responding to questions with long answers that favored anecdotes over policy details.

"You know I'm running for president because I want to renew the promise of America," she said in her opening remarks. "You know we have so much to be proud of. We have the greatest country in the world. But we cannot take that for granted, and I fear that's what's been happening. We've been reversing the progress that so many of us have worked toward."

Clinton also said she was "particularly well prepared" to be president. "Now I know there are people who either say or wonder: Would we ever elect a woman as president?" she added. "I don't think we'll know until we try, and I'm gonna try, and with your help I'll win."

It was all pretty convincing to Shirley and Rick Callison of Greenfield, about an hour from Des Moines. Shirley Callison said that after hearing Clinton, she was rethinking her support of former Sen. John Edwards. And her husband who needed to be persuaded to come to Clinton's appearance -- was equally impressed.

"She was so much more articulate and personable than I had thought," Rick Callison said.

Yet others complained that Clinton was short on substance.

"It felt like the questions were a little staged," said Valerie Nichols, 43, of the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

Thomasine Johnson, 66, also of Johnston, noted that what might become the campaign's biggest issue was barely mentioned.

"There were some big holes for me -- such as Iraq," she said.

The unpopular war came up only when a veteran asked Clinton about President Bush's suggested troop buildup and the senator inexplicably replied with a call for better funding for veterans' health care.

Clinton has been dogged by her 2002 vote authorizing the war. Earlier Saturday, in a meeting with Iowa Democratic activists, she again said she would not have voted for the war if she had known Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction.

Stressing that life offers "no do-overs," Clinton also noted that, to win the general election, the Democratic Party has to nominate a candidate who is strong on defense issues.

"We have to nominate someone who can have the trust and confidence of the American people to make the tough decisions as commander in chief," she said.

Such comments have been rare during the first week of the Clinton campaign, which has focused on showing voters a more personal side of the candidate, who last week told USA Today she is "the most famous person you don't really know."

In her online chats, she said she was rooting for the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. She listed her favorite movies ("The Wizard of Oz," "Casablanca" and "Out of Africa"). And amid wonkish discussions of health care and other issues, she noted that she enjoys gardening, hiking and swimming.

Those chats followed the Internet video that introduced her campaign, in which she relaxed on a sofa in front of a backdrop of family pictures and talked about the "conversation" she wanted to have with America.

"I was struck by the easy informality of the presentation, the warmth of it all," said Robert McClure, a political scientist at Syracuse University.

Richard Collins, a Texas businessman behind an anti-Clinton Web site called "," agreed.

"She's trying to come across as a regular normal woman who cares about issues women care about," said Collins, who maintains that Clinton is trying to mask her liberalism.

Before getting elected president, though, Clinton will have to get past the hurdle presented by Iowa. While she leads all national polls of Democratic voters, she is behind in Iowa, which will choose the first convention delegates next January.

A Jan. 15-16 Zogby poll of 596 likely Democratic voters found Edwards leading with 27 percent. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois ranked second with 17 percent, while Clinton tied for third with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Both had 16 percent.

Local political figures attribute those numbers to Edwards' campaign efforts here for four years, while Obama visited three times last fall. Saturday's appearances were Clinton's first in the state since the fall of 2003.

Her next visit, she said, will come more quickly.

"I'm running for president, and I'm in it to win it," she said. "And I intend to do it the old-fashioned way. I intend to come and talk with you and to listen to you in your living rooms, and in your church basements and in your union halls, wherever you gather."

News wire services contributed to this report.


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