Clinton Not So Soft Today

From CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Jim Axelrod, who's covering the Clinton campaign:

After a week of campaign appearances designed to soften her image -- testimonials from friends, a warm new campaign ad featuring her 88-year old mother, and humanizing reminisces – thick eye glasses and high school crushes -- Hillary Clinton came to a high school auditorium in Grundy Center, Iowa today, stood in front of a huge American flag, surrounded herself with three retired generals and a former ambassador the United Nations and delivered a sober overview of her plans to get out of Iraq. She was crisp and in command, and the speech provided the perfect bookend to several days of coverage about Hillary's attempt to connect more with hearts of Iowans than with their heads.

This was a different Hillary Clinton than we've seen for much of the week. It's not that she covered new ground. She repeated several lines we've heard time and again about the Bush administration -- that "the world will breathe a sigh of relief" when the Bush/Cheney era comes to an end, and that when she's elected "the era of cowboy diplomacy will be over." It was her demeanor. She just seemed so comfortable.

Maybe it was the formality of the podium – she'd been wandering the stage much of the week to promote a sense of casual ease. Maybe it was that she was surrounded by "pillars" in the foreign policy arena – including Richard Holbrooke and Wes Clark – who worked with her husband and seemed to offer added comfort.

The last time she seemed so in command was nearly a month ago when she appeared with a large group of African-American ministers in Spartanburg. Flanked by trusted – and proven – allies, she seems more secure in the face of what can sometimes seem like a polite – if not obligated audience – in this case a high school auditorium full of disinterested students.

And when Hillary Clinton seems more secure and resolute, the distinctions she draws between her opponents seem all the more compelling.

When talking about the imperative of electing someone with an extensive policy background, Clinton noted that the presidency inherits the unexpected. She argued that when things appear "quiet" internationally, it becomes easier to elect someone without the necessary "experience" to face whatever may confront them – it was an apparent reference to her chief rival Barack Obama. Then she closed the deal with a suddently attentive audience – saying that the last time voters elected such a person, voters got President Bush. This elicited sympathetic groans.

Talking about foreign policy gave Hillary permission to abandon her "softer" approach for an hour this morning. When a member of the audience told her he was leaning towards John Edwards because of the "two Americas" concept – Clinton sharply, but convincingly replied that she'd been working to bridge the gap for more than 30 years, and that she'd done "more than give a speech about it."

She runs the risk of seeming smug, but it is worth pointing out that Hillary Clinton is stronger when she's pushing policy than feeling your pain.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.