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Joan Vennochi

That Clinton cackle

HENS CACKLE. So do witches. And, so does the front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest.

Former Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris recently described Hillary Clinton's laugh as "loud, inappropriate, and mirthless. . . . A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech." Politico's Ben Smith referred to Clinton's "signature cackle." Conservative radio hosts routinely play Clinton's "cackle" on their radio shows.

Yet according to a new poll, the cackler is leading her closest competitor in New Hampshire by 20 points. As a result, her challengers made her their target during last week's Hanover, N.H., debate.

Any woman who has ever been the only female in the room knows the guys are always waiting for that perfect moment - the one that makes the woman look silly, stupid, weepy or best of all, witchy. The men running against Clinton are still waiting for such an opportunity.

So far, all they have to work with is her laugh. The cackler is smooth, well-scripted, and undeterred by their now-familiar attacks.

During the debate, Barack Obama continually reminded the audience he opposed the Iraq war from the start. John Edwards stressed his remorse at casting a vote to authorize the war, an obvious contrast to Clinton's refusal to apologize for her vote. Joseph Biden tried to stir doubt about Clinton's ability to work with Congress, given the unpleasant fallout from her past dealings with Capitol Hill on healthcare.

With the least to lose as a long-shot candidate, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel launched the toughest assault. "I'm ashamed of you, Hillary," he said angrily, accusing Clinton of backing an amendment to the pending defense authorization bill that was "essentially a fig leaf to let George Bush go to war with Iran." His verbal bomb went off harmlessly. It elicited "the trademark cackle Clinton uses to open her responses to difficult questions," reported Katie Huston in The Daily Collegian, the newspaper published at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Not too long ago, Clinton's cleavage attracted all the attention. She wore a tank top under a blazer and her modest confirmation of breasts became the subject of serious presidential campaign analysis. Now, the critique is moving from chest to throat, and to a sound associated with female fowl. What's next, speculation that Clinton will cry if Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says something mean about her?

Meanwhile, the candidate manages to duck legitimate questions. Clinton shamelessly dodged Tim Russert when he asked whether she believed the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Library should publish its list of donors, saying, "Well, you'll have to ask them." When Russert pressed for a "recommendation," Clinton replied, "I don't talk about my private conversations with my husband, but I'm sure he'd be happy to consider" making donors public.

That answer is not good enough. Bill Clinton is a major force behind his wife's campaign, as well as a major presence in the campaign. Donors to the Clinton Library could have a big stake in another Clinton presidency. Yet when Russert asked for reaction from other candidates, only Obama spoke up, rightly concluding the information should be disclosed.

Perhaps Clinton's opponents are still having Rick Lazio nightmares. Lazio, Clinton's Republican opponent in the 2000 New York Senate race, sunk his chances when he harshly attacked her during a debate.

So, except for Gravel, they avoid direct punches. Instead, they try to sneak in a slap, as Biden did. Hillary Clinton, he said, suffers unfairly from flashbacks to President Clinton and "a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard. When I say 'old stuff,' I'm referring to policy - policy." Biden's hasty disclaimer left a question as to whether the "old stuff" referred to something other than presidential policy.

The media and her opponents can marginalize Clinton all they want. But the polls indicate the voters are listening to the candidate's words, not to her laugh. Until her opponents start saying something to impress the voters more than she does, Clinton remains the front-runner and presumptive nominee. Her standing is enhanced with each debate. They play to her discipline and command of issues and the stage. That doesn't mean Clinton can't be successfully challenged and knocked off stride.

But her opponents have yet to figure out how to do it.

Giggle, giggle.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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