Democrats' convention goal: Shift voters' thinking about Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is largely viewed unfavorably, polls show. But biographer Sonya Huber says she found evidence the former secretary of state's public and private personas are different.

There's just something about Hillary Clinton.

Polls show that large majorities of people don't like her. They think she's qualified and smart, sure. But they also consider her aloof, calculating, untrustworthy.

On Thursday night, Clinton gets the direct chance to challenge that image as she delivers her acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention and a TV audience of millions.

"She has to connect with people and pivot," said Bob Shrum, the longtime party strategist and master speechwriter. "She can't just say, 'Trust me.' She has to begin to convince people she cares about them, and then they'll begin to trust her."

For Democratic strategists, changing the way people think about their nominee may be the heaviest lift of the campaign. Although she has been a constant in American political life for a quarter century, and the mention of her name sparks both love and loathing, the candidate and her advisers argue that the country doesn't know the real Hillary Clinton.

On Tuesday, the convention program helped with a parade of supporters - including husband and former President Bill Clinton - opening windows into her character, sharing the Hillary they know. Speakers talked about Clinton's lifelong work for women and children, social justice (including time as an undercover investigator of school segregation in Alabama), health care, and global peace and security issues.

They also testified to Clinton's personal qualities, such as her playfulness with children and her loyalty and devotion, driving through a blizzard to the funeral of a friend's father, for instance.

On Wednesday, the former secretary of state's onetime boss, President Obama, pitched in with a description of her crisis-management skills, from his experience of working with her in the Situation Room on vexing problems.

"Even in the middle of crisis, she listens to people, and keeps her cool, and treats everybody with respect," Obama said, according to remarks prepared for delivery. "And no matter how daunting the odds; no matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits. That's the Hillary I know. That's the Hillary I've come to admire."

Yet the public/private dichotomy continues. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month, Clinton's "record of being dishonest" was a serious concern for 69 percent of voters. And 56 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of her, according to the average of polls taken this month compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Sonya Huber, a professor of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut, just wrote a biography called The Evolution of Hillary Clinton. Huber said she repeatedly ran into evidence of a warm, private Hillary Clinton that is often hidden in public.

"My theory is that, seeing the intense scrutiny she fell under as first lady, she became guarded," Huber said. "Amid the '-gates,' the Republicans tried to tag the Clintons with, she developed a defensive personality. She began to sort of withdraw."

In the 1990s, Clinton was scrutinized for her hairstyles and manner, her secretive health-care task force, and scandals involving the Whitewater land deal and giving control of the White House travel office to cronies. More recently, she has come under fire for using a private email server as secretary of state for correspondence, including highly classified information.

While tangling with the contradictions of her own image, Hillary Clinton also has a political balancing act before her - to forge her own path, while also owning her status as Obama's heir and as wife to a former president, who comes with his own potential upside (economic prosperity in the 1990s) and baggage.

Obama is popular, with a 56 percent national job-approval rating in a Washington Post/ABC News Poll this month - his highest since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

"Campaigns are about change," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "As you know, it's very rare for the same party to carry on for a third term in the White House. It is a kind of dance for her, a delicate balancing act."

Yet Obama's popularity will also be a benefit, particularly with Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

And Bill Clinton?

"He's an asset to her effort," Strother said. "One reason is he's probably the best political consultant in America. He's so talented."

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