Nationwide Listening Tour for Clinton?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 2, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

While all the presidential candidates are talking about change, next spring might be just the right time for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to dust off an old strategy to demonstrate a fresh approach.

Burdened with high personal negatives from the outset, Clinton may have an opportunity to improve her image and standing by embarking on a 50-state tour.

The front-loaded primary calendar presents the real possibility that both presidential nominations will essentially be decided by the time Americans wake up on Feb. 6, setting the table for one of the longest general election campaigns in history.

In the vein of her 1999 tour of upstate New York, Clinton could use the extra time to personally introduce herself to voters in normally Republican areas in an effort to humanize the frequently demonized. Some analysts are saying the same thing now that they were back then, that she’s too polarizing and not well-liked. But she proved them wrong.

Provo. Omaha. Oklahoma City. The locations may seem illogical for Clinton (or any Democratic presidential nominee, for that matter), but a visit to these places may push voters to take a second look at the former first lady when they had previously made up their minds. And even in Republican states, the Senator could find pockets of sympathetic audiences on college campuses or with organized labor groups.

“When people meet her, her negatives erode,” according to one influential Iowa Democrat who is backing Clinton.

“She’s one of the warmest politicians I’ve ever met … in person,” Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the prominent liberal blog Daily Kos, said on “Meet the Press” last month. “And for some reason when you see her in these public — in debates, you know, she comes across as colder.”

Of course, the number of people Clinton would actually see is miniscule compared to some 120 million general election voters, and she won’t win states like Utah or Nebraska (just like she didn’t win most places in upstate New York in 2000). But if the tour improves her image among independent voters overall, she could do better in the traditional swing states. It’s also unlikely she could damage her image any further.

“If it was going to be done, this would be the year,” said James Carville, a longtime adviser to the Clinton family, when asked about the feasibility of a national tour.

In her first ad of the presidential campaign, Clinton opened with, “As I travel around America, I’ve heard from so many people that they’re just invisible to their government.” Clinton and her top competitors, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), have all trumpeted the need to unite Americans. And by visiting each state, Clinton could demonstrate a populist message.

Although it’s rare, a nationwide tour in 2008 would not be novel. Back in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon pledged to visit all 50 states, in part to draw attention to the addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the union.

But the tour was arduous — Nixon didn’t begin until after he officially secured the nomination at the Republican convention on July 28 — and his promise forced him to visit the remote, Republican-heavy state of Alaska on the Saturday before Election Day. Nixon’s tour was subsequently criticized after he lost one of the closest presidential races in history, with his detractors saying his time would have been better spent in a more competitive state like Illinois or Texas (both of which he lost).

Any other candidate could embark on his own 50-state tour, but there could be additional benefits specific to Clinton. A hypothetical nationwide journey could help restore the Senator’s relationship with the net roots, which currently ranges from lukewarm to hostile. Clinton ran a distant third with 11 percent behind Edwards (39 percent) and Obama (21 percent) in a September Daily Kos straw poll.

Many online activists believe in and champion Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, a belief that Democrats should challenge Republicans everywhere, regardless of the partisan makeup of a particular state or district. By campaigning in every state, Clinton would be giving some credence to the philosophy.

Similarly, it could be an excellent party-building opportunity for Democrats, with fundraisers in states and districts that haven’t seen a Democratic presidential candidate in decades, if ever. Both the campaign and the local parties could benefit from the excitement and attract new donors who wouldn’t normally show up at an event.

Carville cautioned that a nationwide tour would have to be more than a gimmick. “It has to be part of the message,” he said in an interview.

“You can bet that every television network and major newspaper will be recording every waking moment of the Republican and Democratic nominees,” said a television network source. “If it is Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani, times that by ten.”

A 50-state tour would not necessarily increase media attention, since it likely will reach suffocating levels anyway, but it would provide an easy storyline with colorful graphics tracking Clinton’s progress and the embedded reporters chronicling each stop.

The timing and pace of the tour could go in at least a couple of different directions. The candidate could start early in the spring, after the nomination becomes inevitable, hit a state per day and plan to visit certain states before they hold their primaries. This way it could be done in less than two months and completed close to the time the nominee is chosen anyway.

Another option could be to tour the country during the dog days of summer and schedule Colorado and the Democratic National Convention as the final destination. Clinton could increase interest and suspense by “picking up” her vice presidential running mate along the way in his home state.

Of course, this proposal is not without negative consequences. “It’s not a ridiculous idea,” Carville said. “But it has more problems than benefits.”

“Some [Democrats] on the ballot don’t want her to come [to their state],” explained one Democratic insider. Clinton’s visit could create awkward, and potentially damaging, political situations for Democratic candidates and incumbents. That might result in an abnormally high number of convenient scheduling conflicts for local Democratic candidates as Clinton travels to Republican-leaning districts and states.

Republicans have their backs against the wall and low morale, and some Democrats are afraid to give them any reason to be energized and motivated. Indeed, the 50-state presidential tour may create tension between boosting Clinton’s White House prospects and damaging her party’s chances downballot.

The candidate also would have to balance other campaign-related demands on her time, such as fundraisers, debates and debate prep, not all of which are completely under her campaign’s control. “Once you say you’re going to do it, you’ll have to do it,” Carville said, noting the logistical nightmare of touching down in all 50 states.

And in what might be the biggest pushback, a national tour also would divert time, energy and resources away from traditional battleground states. Campaigning in heavily Republican, and even Democratic, states runs directly contrary to the emerging micro- targeting mentality.

Of course there is no guarantee that Clinton will be the nominee, with the first caucuses still at least three months away. But the 2008 early primary calendar and the unprecedented amount of money being raised could give Clinton an opportunity to capitalize where Nixon failed. And there’s nothing to stop any of the other Democrats from doing it as well.

By spending time reaching out to voters all across the country, Clinton could attempt to soften the Beltway brand she’s earned from her past 16 years in Washington.