01/02/2008 12:05 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Kinder, Gentler Hillary Speaks to Women

Iowa City, IA--Walking into a Clinton rally feels like walking into a shockingly liberal Catholic church. The audience is elderly. Most of the volunteers are female. And there are women on the altar.

For those who say Clinton's gender doesn't--or shouldn't--matter, the message I've heard over and over in Iowa is that it does. "Let's just say when any of the other campaigns call, I tell 'em don't bother," says the woman next to me while we wait for Clinton to come on stage. "All the women in my family are voting for Hillary."

"I was born before women had the vote," a woman with a shaking voice says on one of Clinton's radio spots. "I'd like to live to see a woman president. I think I will."

In ways both subtle and unsubtle, Clinton's strategy in Iowa appears to be to tap into women's desire to see one of their own as president, while counteracting the stereotypes about her as ambitious, entitled, and strident. In short: accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

At this Clinton rally, after 9pm on a sub-zero night, women predominate the audience. Many inch along on walkers. The organizers go out of their way to make sure everyone has a chair. At some Clinton rallies, there are snacks. Compared to Obama's and Edwards', this is a kinder, gentler campaign.

Clinton also projects a very humble image. When she's introduced, she keeps her eyes down. Smart girls everywhere will recognize this gesture--accept praise, but stay modest. She credits her position in the Senate not to herself, but to the voters' willingness to gamble. "The people of New York took a chance on me. And I took that as a very solemn covenant."

In the Sheraton ballroom, with its carpeted floors and low ceilings, Clinton doesn't have to shout to be heard. Instead, her voice is soft, gentle, and low--as King Lear says of his beloved daughter Cordelia, "an excellent thing in a woman."

The softness of her voice also counteracts some of the terrifying images she describes. "Too many Americans feel like they're standing on a trap door," she says. "One pink slip or one medical payment from losing everything." At times, listening to Clinton can be like hearing a bedtime story from the Brothers Grimm.

Clinton also underscores the importance of hard work over privilege or wishful thinking. In Iowa, settled primarily by Germans, Irish, and Dutch, I expect the message of the Protestant ethic goes a long way. But it also speaks to a classically female perception of achievement: it has to be earned. Clinton herself says as much. "America has to be built on and actually practice fairness. You know, people don't resent somebody who gets ahead in life. But nobody should feel like the deck is stacked against them."

I can imagine Clinton late at night in the Oval Office, hers the only light left on in the Washington, DC, showing she deserves to be highest office because she's the one who works the hardest. She's not saying she's better than anyone else. She's just saying it's only fair.

Over and over the last weeks, I've heard Clinton supporters describe their candidate as "smart." I haven't understood what they meant--surely all the candidates are smart? But, as I listen to Clinton give her stump speech, I think I hear what her supporters are saying.

Clinton sounds like she knows stuff. For instance, she tosses off, "I want to get back to direct lending. When I went to college, I borrowed at 2%."

"Direct lending"; "two percent." I'm not totally sure what these terms and numbers mean, but it sure seems like she does.

At another point she says, "Anybody who's ever read about military history knows you have to secure the exit routes." Or, of the oil companies, "They have a cartel, you know."

These are deft phrases: Clinton doesn't bore the audience with the details, yet indicates she's fluent in economics, war, and international politics--guy stuff. The message I hear is that her voice may be soft, but her intellect is tough.

Blending masculinity and femininity seems to be Clinton's forte, at least for this race. The line I found most striking was, "I'm not running for president to put Band-Aids on problems. I'm running for president to solve problems." In two sentences, she goes from being a mother to a father. More exactly, she moves to being a grandmother: wise, a little weary, seasoned by time and experience. An older woman knows that anger can wound and passion goes only so far. What matters is hard work, family, doing one's duty.

Judging by their nodding gray heads and smiling, wrinkled faces, the audience agrees.