WASHINGTON—As she kicks off her campaign Wednesday for a second term, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York carries the image of a leader of her party and the expectation she'll be the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Yet many Democrats and analysts think she's failed to lead at a pivotal time for her party and the nation, complaining that she's been overly cautious and timid in her first term. They contend that she's remained a backbencher on major issues such as the Iraq war and immigration. And they say she's squandered the unique platform her celebrity gives her to put other issues in play, such as expanding health care.
The approach may help or hurt her political career. But it's angered or frustrated some Democrats who want more from her, and has contributed to the buzz within the party for former Vice President Al Gore as a more forceful champion heading into the 2008 campaign.
"As we tackle the great issues and debates, I don't know that she has defined them for us," said Joe Turnham, the state Democratic chairman in Alabama.
At a recent gathering of state and national Democratic leaders in New Orleans, Turnham said, "I sensed . . . a great yearning for someone to step up to the plate and speak the truth with almost a disregard to their own political posturing . . . even the Clinton admirers admit she's not ready to go there yet."
Clinton aides said she focused first on her New York constituents but that those issues also had national reach. They said she was leading on major issues such as homeland security—a local concern given the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York—and health care for the armed services.
But they said many people around the country never heard about her work.
"People don't see what we're doing," Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said. "If she's at an immigration rally in New York, there's no reason someone elsewhere in the country would see it. It's unfortunate people take that as not being as vocal as they like, but it's not correct. She's been very vocal on issues that affect New York and have national implications."
He said television often skipped the more substantive part of Clinton's record for the trivial.
For example, Clinton aides provided a week's schedule that showed her attending briefings or news conferences on such issues as foster care, ports security, and gasoline prices while CNN aired a story about whether her middle name would help or hurt her campaign chances.
"We can't control TV," Reines said. "What we're talking about may not be what they want to cover."
Perhaps not. But several Democrats and analysts said Clinton shied away from taking bold stands that might generate more coverage.
She hasn't, for example, urged a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has. Nor has she been a central player in the immigration debate like Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., or pushed for nationalized health care as she did as first lady.
"Members of Congress scratch and claw to get one line of a news story. Hillary Clinton can wake up and decide to put health care on every front page in the country. But she hasn't," complained David Sirota, a liberal activist and former Democratic congressional aide.
"If you ask, `What does Hillary Clinton really represent?' It would be hard to tell."
"On the big issues, she hasn't been there," agreed Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
He said she'd worked to build a record of collaborating with Republicans on small, noncontroversial issues, much as her husband built up his political capital with proposals such as requiring school uniforms or installing V-chips in televisions to control children's exposure to violence.
"She's very cleverly co-sponsored a lot of minor legislation with conservative republicans like Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., so people can say she's not divisive. It's not on anything of great importance," Baker said.
"What she's really doing is not bold and daring. It's cautious and restrained. It's basically to live down a reputation as being a fire-breathing, bomb-throwing liberal."
That's one possible motive.
Another, of course, is principle. Clinton aides stress, for example, that she doesn't propose a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq because she doesn't want one. And they argue that she continues to work to expand health care.
Yet another is that Clinton might have grown gun-shy, given the intensity of media coverage surrounding her life.
"Sure, there are times I wish she would be a little bit more daring and less timid," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist and Clinton admirer.
"But it's hard to criticize her knowing the immense scrutiny she's under and the pressure she's facing not to screw up. Look at the controversy when she spoke about kids being lazy. If any other senator said it, it would have gotten no attention. For her, it's front-page news and a mini-scandal. It's hard to blame her for being cautious."
For more on Clinton's campaign, go to www.hillaryclinton.com
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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