'About time, if not past time' for woman president - Clinton

By John Whitesides

DES MOINES - Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew big crowds and loud cheers today during her first visit to Iowa as a presidential contender, defending her votes on Iraq and saying it was "about time" for a woman president.

In the state that holds the first contest in the 2008 presidential nomination battle, the former first lady said she thought Americans were ready for a woman in the Oval Office.

"It's about time, if not past time, we had a woman president," she told an enthusiastic and overflow crowd of 1,500 Iowa Democrats jammed into a high school gymnasium in Des Moines.

While some might wonder whether US voters will elect a woman, she said, "I don't think we'll know until we try, and I'm going to try."

Earlier, at a meeting with state Democratic Party officials, she was asked about her 2002 vote to authorize the US-led invasion of Iraq. The New York senator, now a war critic, has been criticized for being slow to turn against the conflict and for her hesitance to renounce her vote.

"I've taken responsibility for my vote, but there are no do-overs in life. I wish there were. I acted on the best judgment I had at the time," she said.

"The president took my vote and others' votes and basically misused the authority we gave him."

The trip was Clinton's first to Iowa since November 2003, when she hosted the state Democratic Party's annual fund-raising dinner featuring the candidates battling for the 2004 presidential nomination.

Burst of publicity

While other candidates have visited Iowa and courted local activists and party leaders for the last two years, Clinton stayed away from the state to stem speculation about her presidential ambitions in the midst of her Senate re-election campaign.

That has helped put her behind in Iowa. While she entered the race last weekend with a burst of publicity and leads a field of eight Democratic contenders in national public opinion polls, polls in Iowa show her trailing 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

Some recent polls also have shown her behind or running even with two other Democratic rivals in Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Clinton advisors say she will begin to make up ground on the others once Iowans, who are used to getting plenty of time with presidential candidates, get a chance to see her.

"I will be here over and over again trying to meet with as many people as possible," she told supporters in Des Moines, where officials had to open up an overflow room to accommodate the crowd.

She took questions during the Des Moines event, almost all of which were friendly and offered praise for her.

At the state party meeting, however, she was pressed about her stance on the war and the chance of success in the Senate at blocking President George W. Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

"We have to build the political will within the Congress to stop President Bush. That means getting Republicans to turn on this policy and turn against the president," she said.

Asked how her campaign might differ from Democrat John Kerry's losing race in 2004, Clinton referred to criticism that Kerry did not hit back hard enough when his military record in Vietnam was attacked.

She said she learned how to run a campaign during her Senate races and during the campaigns for her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

"When you're attacked, you have to deck your opponents," she said. "I want to run a positive, issue-oriented visionary campaign. But you can count on me to stand my ground and fight back."

Clinton planned a house-party style "conversation" in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night and will make an appearance in Davenport on Sunday before leaving Iowa.

- REUTERS

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