NORTHRIDGE, CALIF. -- Ever since her drubbing in Iowa, Hillary Clinton has religiously taken questions from the audience at the end of her stump speech. Her campaign staff feels it is the most effective weapon to counter lingering impressions that she is imperious and remote. The sessions have become somewhat predictable. A question about health care. Another about the mortgage crisis. One about Iraq. They vary in their emotional power, depending on the questioner, but the topics vary little from session to session.
In Northridge, California, Clinton opened up the floor to questions after she was finished. A man addressed her as "Madame President." He said he was an Iraqi by birth, but had been in the United States, proudly voting for 47 years. He said he was just back from Baghdad where he served three years as a doctor.
Criticizing the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, he made reference to the Vice President: "We have a guy's name, Cheney... what is his first name?"
Clinton – seemingly unaware of what she was getting into – answered straight-forwardly: "Dick".
He said, "oh.. that... Dick. You're right."
The crowd laughed.
Clinton – now warming to the moment -- said, "we've got something going here."
The doctor continued. "I said it. Not you."
While the crowd cracked up, there was also a bit of akward unease in the room.
It actually was the bookend of a John McCain event in New Hampshire not too long ago, when a woman referred to Clinton as a word that rhymes with witch.
I caught the man, Abraham Lutfi, on his way out the door. I asked him if he thought it was appropriate to refer to the Vice President of the United States that way.
"I am entitled to express my thoughts any way I want," Lufti said.
True enough, I responded, but did he think it might in some way backfire on the candidate?
His eyes brimmed with tears.
"I am entitled to say whatever I want," he repeated.
And with that he was gone, leaving the question of the difference between "can you" and "should you" unanswered.