Chelsea Clinton takes campaign stage

February 16, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Chelsea Clinton tells students about her mother's plans for the economy and mortgages. The former first daughter outlines Hillary Rodham Clinton's concern about Darfur and women's rights. She ticks through talking points on electability, health care and the environment.

Oh, and she reveals her mother wants grandkids and her father builds their schedule around a popular TV drama, "Grey's Anatomy."

Chelsea Clinton has emerged as a top surrogate for her mother as the former first lady has fallen behind Sen. Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Now dispatched to college campuses, the long-silent Chelsea Clinton has sought to blend campaign spin with personal touches. But she's also drawn a share of unsought attention, including an MSNBC reporter who suggested she is being "pimped out" by her parents.

The Clintons instituted a firm circle of silence around their daughter when Bill Clinton won his first White House term in 1992. And she began this campaign as uneasy stage-dressing beside her mother -- even ordered to hold supporters' jackets on one New Hampshire stage. In Iowa and New Hampshire, she never spoke.

By now, she's a full-fledged player in the campaign, something she had vowed to avoid.

"I live and work in New York and have had a private life -- at least, did until about five weeks ago," she lamented during a stop at Dayton's Sinclair Community College. She's an associate with Avenue Capital, a $12 billion hedge fund run by Marc Lasry, a longtime Clinton donor.

She's tried to be a good sport about her new role. At Sinclair, she wore an oversized school sweat shirt that muted her clapping. As she took the microphone, she pushed up the sleeves and went to work trying to sell her mother's campaign.

While the answers are almost identical to her mother's, the presentation is far from it. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the campaign trail is a polished professional -- every hand gesture and every pause choreographed for maximum effect. Chelsea lacks the precise execution her mother has perfected. Chelsea's voice is soft and often trails off at the end of sentences, which frustrates audiences.

"Where did she go to school," Ohio Wesleyan freshman Erica Hankins asked a campaign aide during one of her appearances.

She attended Stanford University and Oxford in England, the aide answered.

"You'd think they would teach her how to talk louder," Hankins replied dryly.

Despite growing up around politicians and campaigns, political life is clearly not her strength.

"The full stretch of my political aspiration is to help her by my presence," she said. And she doesn't plan to run for office herself or move back into the White House.

"I'm 27. I'm not going to be moving back in with parents, as much as I love them," she says repeatedly on the trail.

While pressing her mother's case, she still has refused to talk on-the-record to reporters. She politely smiles when reporters ask questions.

In Iowa, she even refused to answer questions from a 9-year-old Scholastic News reporter.

"I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press and that applies to you, unfortunately. Even though I think you're cute," Chelsea told the pint-sized journalist.

Her new role hasn't come without criticism. Chelsea Clinton has been calling and meeting with superdelegates, but MSNBC anchor David Shuster noted that she refuses to answer questions about what she's doing. Shuster was later suspended for suggesting she had been "pimped out."

Her visit to a New Haven, Conn., polling location -- where she delivered coffee to election workers -- raised the question of whether she was campaigning illegally close to where people vote.

In the final campaign push, she's tried to humanize her mother and father. She told students at Omaha's Creighton University that her father built their night around ABC-TV's "Grey's Anatomy."

And when an Ohio State University student asked last week about health care, she worked her mother's wish to be a grandmother into her answer.

"What your girlfriend needs is different than what I may need -- is different than what I would need when I make my mother happy and give her grandchildren -- is different than what my grandmother needs," she said. "There are different health needs based on our situations."

In praising her mother's ability to forge bipartisan partnerships in the Senate, Chelsea even made a public reference to her father's impeachment and Senate trial for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"She and Senator (Lindsay) Graham -- who is a conservative and Republican senator from South Carolina who is one of the people who prosecuted my father in the '90s, so maybe wouldn't be who you would think she would be in partnership with -- have found common ground on standing up for our veterans."

She must be doing something right, because the campaign gave a plum assignment this weekend: three-days of campaigning in Hawaii, where Democrats hold caucuses Tuesday.


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