Clinton shows soft side to South

She ditches the accent and cracks jokes to try to win over conservatives.

Published May 1, 2007

GREENVILLE, S.C. - This is not Hillary Territory. This is, in the words of the local Democratic chairman, "the front line in the culture wars, " a Southern town where Republicans rule and where people from both parties are wary of the famous senator from the North.

"I just think she's annoying, " said Leslie Milling, a creative consultant from a construction company attending a chamber of commerce meeting where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., spoke last week. Milling, a Republican, was particularly irked by Clinton's recent speech in Selma, Ala., in which she seemed to put on a Southern accent.

Others in the crowd were equally wary - even the Democrats. "I think she's too divisive, " said John Bell, a Democratic lawyer who is undecided about a presidential candidate.

But in the chamber of commerce speech and at a town hall meeting the same day, Clinton softened her tone, emphasized personal responsibility a subtle appeal to conservatives and avoided the faux Southern accent.

Among Democratic voters, Clinton leads in most of the early primary and caucus states, including South Carolina. Among Democrats in the state, she leads with 33 percent, compared with 26 percent for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and 21 percent for former Sen. John Edwards, a native of South Carolina.

But her negative ratings remain quite high: 46 percent among all voters nationwide and 83 percent among Republicans, which helps to explain the cool response she got at the chamber meeting in conservative Greenville.

Her campaign speeches last week showed how she is trying to simultaneously inspire her supporters while softening her image with people who are less fond of her.

The chamber of commerce meeting attracted a mix of Republicans and Democrats, so Clinton was not especially partisan in her speech. To avoid accusations that her universal health care plan was "big government, " she emphasized personal responsibility, saying she would ask people to take better care of their health.

The town hall meeting, held in a church auditorium, was a more lively affair, with nearly 1, 000 people cheering and waving signs when she walked on stage.

She began by making a joke about her accent. She said she had spent a third of her life in Arkansas, a third in Illinois and a third on the East Coast - "I think America is ready for a multilingual president."

She offered a few lines to appeal to the party's liberal base about helping the poor and protecting the environment and even resurrected the Al Gore promise to protect Social Security in a "lockbox."

During a question-and-answer period, a 14-year-old girl asked Clinton why abortion was not considered murder. Clinton replied with a history of abortion law, tracing the U.S. approach to British law. She cited China and Romania as countries where the government was too intrusive about requiring or prohibiting abortions, and said women in the United States should be able to choose.

"I believe abortion should be safe, legal - and rare, " she said.

People who attended both events said they were warming up to Clinton.

Milling, a Republican, won't be voting for Clinton but said the senator was "personable. She didn't harp on issues like she sometimes does. She seemed almost soft-spoken."

Lynette Gilbert, a schoolteacher from Moonville who is undecided in the race, said Clinton "looks better in person than she does on TV ... As she goes along, she gets better. She gets softer."

Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.

Fast Facts:


Vote breakdown

Here's a look at how the Democratic candidates stack up among likely primary voters in South Carolina.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: 33 percent

Sen. Barack Obama: 26 percent

Former Sen. John Edwards: 21 percent

No other Democratic candidate is above 1 percent statewide.

Source: NewsChannel 15-Zogby poll, April 23