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Clinton book-tour missteps could point to weaknesses

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Hillary Clinton reportedly plans to spend most of the summer in relative seclusion, after a month-long pre-campaign road test promoting her qualifications from being secretary of state and testing her stamina for a potential marathon ahead.

But frenzied events where enthusiastic supporters mobbed the pre-season 2016 presidential favourite shared press attention with missteps showing she might face problems unless she foregoes the defensive attitude that sometimes marked her 2008 effort.

After all, given her strong support among Democrats, her ability to raise funds and the lack of rivals with stature, news coverage of a Clinton campaign may well focus on verbal or political gaffes.

Clinton passed a different pre-campaign test Tuesday night on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, though host Jon Stewart provided a friendly atmosphere. He twice concluded that her answers signified she was running for president, drawing only raucous laughter from Clinton.

The book tour got off on the wrong foot, when she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer she and Bill Clinton left the White House "not only dead broke but in debt" before becoming wealthy by raking in millions for their memoirs and personal appearances.

By the time Stewart raised the issue a month later, Clinton had honed her response. She called the "dead broke" comment "an inartful use of words," adding "what I worry about" is whether "other people, and particularly younger people, are not going to have the same opportunities we did."

"You know what was kind of awesome — and it says to me you’re running for president — was how easily you pivoted from that into inequality in America," Stewart replied.

But her "dead broke" answer remains a potential target for rivals, and the way NBC’s Chuck Todd questioned her explanation of Washington gridlock showed almost everything she says will face analysis or criticism.

Clinton created another unnecessary misstep by turning what should have been a friendly interview with NPR’s Terry Gross into a heated exchange by repeatedly resisting a question about when she switched to support gay marriage. She finally said her stance evolved and, "when I was ready to say what I said, I said it."

Later, her memory was challenged over her role as a defence attorney in 1975 for a man accused of — and ultimately convicted for — raping a 12-year-old. The victim charged Clinton "took me through hell" by falsely questioning her past history to get the defendant’s sentence reduced.

Each flap received exhaustive, though ephemeral, coverage on cable news channels, from conservative Fox to liberal MSNBC, which fill time with repetitive, overheated coverage of political controversies.

But Clinton survived an array of Benghazi questions during a Fox News interview without providing conservative critics additional fodder.

Some journalists used her tour to float premature angles: Politico’s David Nather’s groused her book didn’t provide "a clear reason to run for president again."

Still, both tour and book drew more positive than negative reviews, though it’s hardly light summertime reading.

Despite "a rough couple of weeks" and "flagging book sales," Politico’s Maggie Haberman wrote, "Clinton has nevertheless accomplished much of what she set out to do with the rollout of Hard Choices."

But Haberman added the "consensus out of the Acela corridor" is that "the media-political complex is already getting Clinton fatigue."

It’s unclear if that extends beyond the political punditocracy’s inordinate focus on 2016. Some Democrats, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seem disinclined to challenge Clinton. But Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who drew good notices recently in Iowa, may run anyway. And sufficient disquiet exists about a Clinton revival that she’d likely face a leftist challenger, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

That’s because, despite Clinton’s strong poll numbers, the climate may be unfavorable for an establishment Democrat tied closely to the Obama administration. Besides, presidential campaigns often hinge on the unexpected, like self-inflicted wounds.

Clinton’s book tour showed how these could arise.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.

— The Dallas Morning News


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