Seeing grit and ruthlessness in Clinton’s fighting style

By Mark Leibovich and Kate Zernike

New York Times News Service

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is waving her fists across Indiana, signing autographs on boxing gloves.

"We need a president who’s a fighter again," Clinton said at a rally on Thursday, adding that the next president must understand what it is like to "get knocked down and get back up. That’s the story of America, right?"

In recent days, Clinton has chided the experts for "counting me out" and Sen. Barack Obama for his inability to "close the deal," and declared that no one was going to make her quit. "She makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy," North Carolina’s governor, Michael F. Easley, said in endorsing her, and a union leader in Portage, Ind., praised her "testicular fortitude."


This kind of language and pugilistic imagery, however, also evokes the baggage that makes Clinton such a provocative political figure. Just as supporters praise her "toughness" and "tenacity," critics also describe her as "divisive," "a dirty fighter" or "willing to do anything to win."

"She has learned how to be ruthless," said Robert B. Reich, an Obama supporter who served as Clinton’s secretary of labor and knew Clinton in their college days. "I doubt that it came to her naturally, but she has learned."

While Clinton is casting herself as a warrior for ordinary Americans who need jobs and health care and cheaper gasoline, she is also establishing a contrast with her opponent, suggesting that he is an untested lightweight.

When asked if the fighting motif could go too far, Clinton acknowledged that it could, but then quickly contrasted her aggressive style with Obama’s. His campaign "has been about creating an atmosphere," she said. "I’ve never understood that. Because it’s not easy. I’ve been in a lot of these fights."

Some of the conflicts she has engaged in were of her own choosing, like education reform in Arkansas, while others, like Whitewater and impeachment, were not. From Bill Clinton’s 1980 defeat as governor in Arkansas and the Democrats’ presidential losses through the next decade, the Clintons took away an enduring lesson: No attack can go unanswered. It must be dealt with fast, hard and decisively.

To that end, Clinton has spearheaded the creation of "war rooms" over the years, beginning with the rapid-response media operation of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign "She was the one who named it ‘war room,"’ said James Carville, the longtime Clinton loyalist.

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