Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hillary Clinton Woos Voters with French Fries

I never intended French Fry Diary to be a political entity, but this is too good to pass up...

From The Telegraph:

Hillary Clinton woos voters with French fries

By Toby Harnden in Toledo, Iowa

Perched on a red vinyl bar stool, her elbows on the worn plastic counter of the Maid-Rite luncheonette, Hillary Clinton scooped up French fries with her fingers and hungrily tucked into a ground beef sandwich.

The front runner for the White House carried on munching as she urged onlookers inside the eatery just off Route 30 to sample what Iowans regard as classic fare. "It's good, you should try it," she enthused. "It's got mustard in it and a tomato-based sauce."

She leaned forward as her waitress Anita Esterday explained that she was a single mother and nurse who did two jobs to raise her sons and could not afford medical insurance. Mrs Clinton nodded sympathetically and told her: "I'm proud of you."

The scene was picture perfect and the theme just right. An impromptu stop at a roadside eatery crammed full of everyday folks would help dispel the oft-levelled charge that the former First Lady is a professional politician who does not relate easily to ordinary people. Miss Esterday's plight was just what Mrs Clinton was highlighting on her "Middle Class Express" bus as it sped from town to town past fields of corn and soybeans. Such a spontaneous interaction was the stuff of campaigning among Iowa caucus-goers, who are proud of their brand of face-to-face retail politics.

Except that virtually every detail of the casual visit had been carefully orchestrated. A team of burly Secret Service men, clad in suits and shades, had driven ahead to carry out a recce. All but two of the customers were Clinton loyalists, including union leaders flown in from New York and Washington, who had been at her previous rally and were travelling on her bus.

Mrs Clinton chatted with the supporters, some of whom grinned a little sheepishly at the blatant staging, as the photographers snapped away. Reporters, kept on a separate bus throughout the day, seemed so stunned to be suddenly beside her that the only questions asked were about what she had ordered.

Was she drinking Coke or Pepsi? "Iced tea, unsweetened — news flash!" responded Mrs Clinton, who has a clear lead in national polls among her Democratic rivals and has now edged ahead in the crucial farm state of Iowa, where party supporters will have their first chance to vote for their candidate in January.

The Maid-Rite encounter was the closest Mrs Clinton got to an unscripted moment or a real discussion with a regular voter all day.

Although she repeatedly used the tale of hearing about the waitress's tough lot as a "perfect example" of what her campaign was about, Mrs Clinton took no questions from the several hundred people gathered at the four events she held on Monday.

With her senior operatives hoping that her campaign is an almost unstoppable juggernaut, the new Clinton strategy appears to be to minimise the potential for any mistakes. The to-and-fro sessions during her early events are now a rarity and she often goes for days without a press conference.

At the final stop in Ames, Luke Gran, 22, a forestry student at Iowa State University, repeatedly raised his hand in the air during Mrs Clinton's 35-minute speech in a vain attempt to ask a question.

He jumped up and down in frustration as she finished off her waitress anecdote by saying: "I see these stories every day. No American is invisible to me."

Mr Gran, a campaign volunteer for John Kerry, the Democrat who lost to President George W Bush in 2004, was disgusted. "It's talking down to us," he said. "How does she know what I care about if she won't listen to my questions? It's terrible and it's not leadership."

His friend Adam Faircloth, also 22 and studying political science, said: "We wanted interaction but there was none. It was so top down."

The question-free day was perhaps a reaction to an unseemly confrontation with Randall Rolph, a Democratic voter, on Sunday after he asked her a hostile question about Iran that she said was a plant – "somebody obviously sent to you". Afterwards, Mr Rolph accused her of having "bitch-slapped me".

Mrs Clinton drew very healthy crowds on Monday and won applause for her fluent speeches blaming Mr Bush's "cowboy diplomacy" for having "alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies". But with her chief rival Barack Obama having a more extensive organisation in Iowa and still holding frequent question-and-answer sessions across the state, a Clinton strategy of trying to remain aloof and avoid controversy could, paradoxically, turn out to be risky.

Mr Gran said: "She's an intelligent woman and I don't dislike her, but I feel she's missing the point of all this."