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Tough talk drives Clinton effort

National security stance seen adding to image of strength

General George W. Casey Jr. (left), then-commander of multinational forces in Iraq, talked with Senator Hillary Clinton, who was part of a congressional delegation visiting Iraq in January. At right is Lieutenant General Ray Odiemo. General George W. Casey Jr. (left), then-commander of multinational forces in Iraq, talked with Senator Hillary Clinton, who was part of a congressional delegation visiting Iraq in January. At right is Lieutenant General Ray Odiemo. (SERGEANT CURT CASHOUR/US ARMY VIA Associated press)

Facing liberal bloggers last weekend, Hillary Clinton reminded the crowd that she experienced firsthand the sickening smell and taste in the air at the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11, 2001. At Tuesday night's debate in Chicago, she insisted the United States needs to keep Al Qaeda "on the run" in Iraq. The next day, she stopped off for a private tour of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard before a stump speech in New Hampshire.

Clinton has taken extraordinary pains, not only on the campaign trail but in her years in the US Senate, to position herself as the candidate who would be the strongest commander in chief, even as she has infuriated some Democrats who believe her desire to appear tough made her slow to criticize the Iraq war.

Because she is a Democrat and the first serious female contender for the presidency in a time of war, convincing voters that she can be trusted with the nation's security is one of her biggest hurdles.

The New York senator seems to have won this trust, helping her jump to the front of the Democratic pack.

In several national polls and in Iowa, the first caucus state, she is the Democrat who most likely primary voters say is the "strongest leader," a term generally seen as encompassing defense know-how. And a New York Times/CBS News poll of Republicans as well as Democrats last month found that 58 percent of respondents thought it was somewhat or very likely that she would be an effective commander in chief.

Clinton came into the campaign with some advantages in foreign policy, including eight years of globe-hopping and meetings with world leaders as the wife of a president. But the extent to which she is seen among voters as a credible commander in chief has surprised many campaign observers, given how much other women in American politics have struggled to be taken seriously on military and foreign policy issues.

"It is amazing to many of us, in a year where being commander in chief is the most important issue, that the sole woman is actually the only one who has managed to come across as a strong commander in chief," said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who worked in the Clinton White House and advised Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, but has not decided whom to support in the 2008 race.

Added Daron Shaw, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin and a former campaign strategist for President Bush, "She's come off as credible and serious on national defense -- an issue that two years ago most of us would have thought would be a liability for her."

When Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1984, she was dogged by questions about whether she could "push the button" to launch an attack if the Cold War turned hot.

"I was quizzed [about foreign policy] everywhere I went. It was test, test, test," recalled Ferraro. "It was patronizing and offensive."

"But you can't do that with Hillary Clinton," said Ferraro, who is backing Clinton, citing the senator's greater experience. "Hillary is in a totally different place."

Society has changed, but Clinton has also been tending carefully to her defense bona fides since she was elected to the Senate in 2000, mindful not only of her gender but how much the "draft dodger" label hurt her husband in his campaigns.

She worked hard to get a seat on the powerful Armed Services Committee, which deals with most defense issues. She has advocated for better health benefits and higher pay for the military, and even free postage for families to mail packages to loved ones serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And she has sought private briefings with military leaders and has grown friendly with several high-profile retired generals.

"My former colleagues, retired flag officers, whom I've set up to meet with her, come back and say, 'Wow, she listens to what we have to say more than any other senator,' " said Donald L. Kerrick, a retired general and former deputy national security adviser to President Clinton. Kerrick helps organize meetings of retired officers to advise Hillary Clinton's campaign.

In addition to working with fellow Democrats to pressure the Bush administration to end the war in Iraq, Clinton has taken stands less popular with liberals, cosponsoring a bill to expand the Army by 100,000 soldiers and supporting new spending on missile defense. She has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan three times to meet the troops and talk to commanders and Iraqi leaders.

"She engaged in a very serious effort to educate herself on national security matters," said Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor and Vietnam veteran. "She has prepared herself very conscientiously for the office."

But Bacevich, who spoke out against the Iraq war long before his soldier son was killed by a bomb there in May, said that knowledge and preparation are distinct from wisdom and judgment. Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war -- heavily criticized by her opponents and liberal bloggers -- "is a small but damning piece of evidence" about her wisdom, he said.

Yet Clinton is doing surprisingly well among antiwar Democrats, leading Senator Barack Obama 51 percent to 29 percent among those who want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq -- which isn't even her position -- according to a Washington Post/ABC poll last month.

Partly, that is because she is seen as the most electable Democrat and because she has managed so far to repudiate the war without apologizing for her vote to authorize it. But observers also say that in debates and speeches, she has often managed to come across as both the toughest and the most clear-eyed candidate.

At Tuesday night's debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO, she sounded like the elder statesman, painting Obama as rash for raising the possibility of unilateral action against terrorists in Pakistan, without saying what she herself would do. "You can think big," she said. "But remember you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it has consequences across the world."

And even as Clinton attacks the Bush administration for neglecting diplomacy, she often makes tough comments that sound a lot like the president. At one debate, she spoke of the need to retaliate against terrorists and said the United States should "destroy" Osama bin Laden.

She frequently recalls the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and defended the idea of a "war on terror" when another Democratic hopeful, former senator John Edwards, likened the term to a bumper sticker slogan.

While many voters view Clinton as cold and calculating, those very characteristics help her come off as a plausible leader of the armed forces, some analysts say.

Some see in her a bit of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister known as the "Iron Lady," and distinguish Clinton from Patricia Schroeder, the Democratic congresswoman from Colorado who was ridiculed for tearing up when she announced she would not run for president in 1988.

"A lot of things that people thought were her weaknesses are turning out to be her strengths on this issue -- the fact that she is not warm and cuddly," Kamarck said.

Schroeder, who supports Clinton, said that women in politics still have to "leap through 14 hoops" to be taken as seriously as men, but that Clinton has accomplished that. "You couldn't play it any better," she said.

Still, some voters would never accept her as their commander in chief. "She doesn't have much experience," said Jim Golden of Farmington, N.H., commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Rochester. "I don't think sex has anything to do with it."

Golden, who spent 22 years in the Marines including three tours in Vietnam, is an undecided Republican leaning toward Senator John McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said Clinton's "problem is not her gender so much as the fact that she's taken a page from John Kerry's failed presidential campaign."

"First she was for the war and said she rejected setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq," Wilkerson said in a statement. "Now she's not only calling for an arbitrary deadline, but she also was one of 14 senators who voted to cut off funding for our men and women still fighting in harm's way."

Today's military, however, is more open-minded than outsiders realize, particularly given the strain of the war, said Daniel W. Christman, a retired general and former West Point superintendent advising Clinton's campaign.

"Given the experiences of the last 6 1/2 years," Christman said, "one thing I have perceived in the officer corps, at least in the Army, is that what had been an almost reflexive conservative or Republican bias has shifted."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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