The atmosphere was anything but electric at the UW Memorial Union today, where for more than 90 minutes potential two-time First Daughter Chelsea Clinton exercised near-androidal command of Hillary Clinton's policy details as she fielded questions from a largely female audience. Chelsea, who in December refused to answer a question posed by a nine-year-old reporter, has made a sudden about face, riding onto college campuses nationwide over the last few weeks trying to corral the elusive youth vote.
With rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama expected to sweep this week's primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C., next week's Wisconsin primary becomes critical to the survival of Clinton's campaign. According to Chelsea, Clinton will visit Madison soon, but couldn't say when.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, will speak Tuesday evening at the Kohl Center.
Chelsea's campaign efforts were admonished last week MSNBC correspondent David Shuster, who said that the Clinton campaign had "pimped out" the formerly press-shy 27-year-old. The comment drew the fury of campaign officials, particularly Clinton who has threatened to pull out of debates sponsored by NBC-sponsored debates. Shuster was subsequently suspended.
Chelsea took the stage at the second floor lounge in the Union a little after 4 p.m., following introductions by student organizers and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who emphasized Clinton's environmental and children's rights issues, to tame applause. The student organizers then marveled over Chelsea's achievements.
"This is a woman who for 27 years has watched her mother help people," one said, to which a heckler retorted, "Especially the Iraqis!"
The audience quietly gasped, not knowing what to expect from Ms. Clinton, whose thoughts, let alone voice, have rarely been heard. But from the minute she clutched the mic, she was in full command of the show, jumping into a question shouted from the very rear of the overcrowded room. Without pause, she plowed through her mother's policies on Social Security, the economy, gay rights, global warming, class disparities, and free trade, with admirable clarity and specificity.
An incorrigible few asked questions that, judging from the general reaction, many in the room found uncomfortable. She took a question from the heckler who moments earlier had implied her mother is complicit in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, asking if Clinton has ever expressed remorse for war casualties. Calm, composed, collected, Chelsea didn't miss a beat, explaining, albeit somewhat perfunctory, that her mother had initially voted to put weapons inspectors back in Iraq, but supported the war based on the evidence presented to her. He lamented that she should have anticipated a high death toll.
"Maybe you had clairvoyance, and that's amazing," Chelsea chided.
She fielded questions from a variety of people, including a student veteran who is back on alert one month into the semester. An undecided gay voter asked her about gay rights, another about her dislike for nuclear energy. When one woman called Chelsea's attempts to woo superdelegates unethical, she politely disagreed and moved on.
UW College Democrats chair Oliver Kiefer live-blogged the rally, meanwhile, covering Chelsea's arrival, a pair of opening questions about Social Security and nuclear energy, the queries about Iraq noted above, a couple of questions about cross-aisle appeal and LGBT rights, and a final set of questions about superdelegates, free trade, and more Iraq, among other topics. Another report by UW student Steven Lawrence also features photos and video from the rally.
For the most part, Chelsea was preaching to the choir. Most of the audience seemed to have already settled on Clinton, applauding her commitment to a variety of issues. But for those unfamiliar with Clinton's master plan, Chelsea articulated a visionary schematic for America that includes a national shift toward sustainability, revamping the tax code, expanding gay rights, revisiting trade agreements and ending the war on science and the one in Iraq.
Jessica Landkamer, 19, likes Hillary Clinton because she offers more than rhetoric. "She doesn't just give you broad brushstrokes," said Landkamer, among the first in line. "She seems to know what she's talking about."
Landkamer says she's worried that Clinton's campaign is faltering. Her once extraordinary lead has since January largely evaporated. Obama's magnetic personality, soaring rhetoric and formidable fundraising have helped him levy a generational divide and mobilize the youth and African-American vote in record numbers. But with the contest neck-and-neck, critics have begun pressing Obama for specifics, which haven't been forthcoming.
Chelsea certainly delivered, her precise answers to complex questions packed such explanatory power that it's curious the Clinton campaign didn't unleash her sooner. One also couldn't help but wonder if the uplifting Senator from Illinois could exercise the same mastery over detail in a similar setting, if at all.