Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is staking out centrist positions on values issues that helped decide last year’s presidential election, positioning herself to the right of her party’s base on abortion, faith-based initiatives and immigration.
In the past few weeks, the New York Democrat has embraced the role of religion in addressing social ills, decried abortion as “sad, even tragic” and complained about the influx of illegal aliens — all stances that run counter to liberal party leaders, but which are popular among voters.
“I think what we’re seeing is, at least rhetorically, the attempt of the ultimate makeover,” said Gary Bauer, president of the American Values organization and a former Republican presidential candidate.
“She clearly wants to sit in the Oval Office. She’s a bright lady, and I think she watched her party throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the president and still lose. She’s made her own calculation that values in the broadest sense of the word was the reason for that loss,” he said.
Considered by many Democratic Party leaders to be the front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination, the senator is raising eyebrows among the party’s liberal elite, who moved left after the surprising Democratic losses in the 2002 midterm elections.
Although the party appears poised to continue on that path — just one of the seven candidates to head the Democratic National Committee, Timothy J. Roemer of Indiana, is pro-life — Mrs. Clinton has sought to position herself as a more moderate alternative.
But Philippe Reines, press secretary for Mrs. Clinton, said his boss is not attempting to remake herself. Instead, he said, she is simply repeating positions that she has set out in the past.
“The times may have changed, but her beliefs have not,” he said.
Some conservatives, however, saw a change when Mrs. Clinton delivered a speech on Monday, two days after the 32nd anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that made abortion a constitutional right. In her remarks, she offered some conciliatory language on the divisive issue.
“Yes, we do have deeply held differences of opinion about the issue of abortion, and I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and minds that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available,” the former first lady said.
“There is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate. We should be able to agree that we want every child born in this country to be wanted, cherished and loved,” adding that abortion “represents a sad, even tragic choice to many.”
The story was splashed across the front page of the New York Times and included the conclusion by the reporter that Mrs. Clinton “appeared to be reaching out beyond traditional core Democrats who support abortion rights.”
Mr. Reines said that Mrs. Clinton’s stance was not new and probably didn’t deserve to be on the front page.
“As Senator Clinton has done for over a decade, she emphasized her desire to focus on making abortions safe, legal and rare, and she emphasized that we should be able to find some common ground,” the spokesman said.
Nancy Keenan, the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, also said she saw nothing new in what Mrs. Clinton said Monday.
“Senator Clinton’s remarks yesterday were a perfect statement of the pro-choice position. … She reiterated time and time again her support for Roe, she outlined ways to reduce unintended pregnancies,” she said.
Mr. Bauer, however, said he had never heard Mrs. Clinton be so “nuanced on abortion.”
“Some of her most offensive speeches have been in front of pro-choice groups,” he said, adding that Mr. Reines’ contention “safely fits into the spin category.”
Mrs. Clinton has used moderate rhetoric on other issues as well.
She said last week, “There is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles.”
However, Democrats have fought proposals by President Bush that would expand the role of religious groups in delivering social services.
Although some liberals have belittled religious people who populate the “red states,” the senator said America is big enough for people to “live out their faith in the public square.”
She also has taken a hard line on immigration — in some ways one that is more conservative than the president, who has proposed a “guest-worker” program that many Republicans charge would amount to amnesty for the up to 12 million illegals in the country.
She said last week that Mr. Bush has not “protected our borders,” and said last February: “I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants.”
Although some pundits mused that Mrs. Clinton’s seizure of the middle ground is politically savvy this far out from an election, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said otherwise.
“The most dangerous thing for a politician is to go through the buzzsaw of hypocrisy. It is actually better to be principled and extreme than to be contradictory and mainstream,” Mr. Luntz said.
Charlie Black, a Republican consultant with close ties to the Bush White House, agreed.
“She’s trying to follow a lesson from Kerry’s loss, which is that the party is perceived as too liberal. But she’s ignoring another lesson from Kerry’s loss: That he suffered badly for flip-flopping and being perceived as an opportunist,” he said.
Still, Mr. Black noted that Democrats have learned a lesson from the 2004 election: They’ve got to “be able to talk to conservatives and people of faith.”
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant, said Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric represents “not a change in position as much as an example of change in the way Democrats can talk about things, and especially anything about values.”
“What Democrats are learning is there’s a way to talk about it in a way that is respectful of the values of people on both sides of the issues,” she said, addressing the sense of intolerance among the Democratic Party that many pundits said was a shortcoming in the ‘04 election.
“Democrats have been less willing to talk about values openly, but I think most people now realize it must be done,” Mrs. Marsh said.
But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said voters are “smart enough to be able to look at people’s records. I mean, they did with John Kerry.”