NEW YORK – In a year voters say they crave fundamental political change, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton is taking a gamble: arguing that her years of experience working within the political system make her the best candidate to change the system.
But does her career — eight years as White House first lady, seven as senator from New York, and 12 as Arkansas first lady — offer evidence to support that claim? And will her message resonate with Democratic primary voters, who may not embrace a candidate so willing to seek accommodation?
"If she's already declaring her intent to compromise, it's exactly the concern progressives and party activists have always had about her. With all the triangulation of the last Clinton presidency, I'm surprised she'd do it," said Robert Borosage, president of Campaign for America's Future, a liberal think tank.
The "change vs. experience" debate has dominated the Democratic contest in recent months, with top rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards claiming Clinton is too conventional and too cozy with special interests to bring real reform to Washington.
Top Republican rival Rudy Giuliani has raised another criticism. In a televised GOP debate this week, the former New York mayor argued that Clinton and her lead opponents don't have the executive experience necessary to be president — even as Clinton touts her husband's eight years in the White House as part of her own resume.
Clinton advisers say her new campaign theme is an effort to reinforce her image as the most experienced candidate while reframing the "change" issue on terms most favorable to her.
It's a tricky pivot for the Democratic front-runner and the darling of the party establishment. A Gallup Poll released this week found 73 percent of Democratic voters say they favor a presidential candidate who advocates changing the system, while only 26 percent opted for experience.
In a new campaign speech, and in ads airing in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton tries to bridge the two. She argues that only a president well-schooled in the ways of Washington can achieve the results voters seek.
"I've learned you bring change by working in the system established by the Constitution. You can't pretend the system doesn't exist," the New York senator said in New Hampshire, her husband at her side.
Predictably, Obama and Edwards have harshly criticized that argument.
Campaigning in New Hampshire this week, Obama told voters "the problem is that the system in Washington isn't working for us and hasn't for a long time."
Edwards, who picked up a union endorsement in New York Thursday, was more direct.
"We fundamentally disagree about this," when asked whether change requires compromise or the more confrontational style he favors. "Democratic voters will have a choice in this election. Senator Clinton is entitled to her view, and I'm entitled to mine."
Clinton's advisers insist that her willingness to accommodate "the system" shouldn't be viewed as an eagerness to compromise on key issues.
"You have to know when to stand your ground and when to have common ground," Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson said. "You need to work across party lines to come to a meeting of the minds, and she can point to a record of success in all those areas."
But can she? A look at her record shows mixed results.
As first lady, Clinton's signature policy initiative — reforming the nation's health care system — fell apart, largely due to both Clintons' refusal to seek compromise with health care industry skeptics and lawmakers. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton says she learned important lessons from that experience and plans a more inclusive approach to reforming health care as president.
Edwards, for his part, has scoffed at that pledge. "If working with, compromising, sitting at the table with insurance companies, drug companies and their lobbyists were successful, we'd have universal health care today. You have to be willing to fight," he said.
After the failure of her health care initiative in 1994, Clinton's visibility as an adviser to her husband was considerably diminished for the remainder of his two terms. But while she was publicly attending to the official duties of the first lady, she also kept her hand in policy matters.
In 1997, she authored the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a multibillion-dollar initiative to provide insurance to children whose families are ineligible for Medicaid but are unable to afford private insurance. Clinton helped negotiate the bill with lawmakers of both parties and has courted Republicans to approve a major expansion of the program as a senator.
In the Senate, Clinton has won praise for working across party lines on several issues. Among other things, she co-authored legislation with former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to promote computerization of medical records.
She's also won over many Republicans in New York by attending carefully to local matters, such as advocacy for first responders suffering health problems after working at ground zero in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But critics argue her best known Senate vote — to authorize the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2002 — is evidence of a tendency to follow conventional wisdom rather than stand for principle. Obama, who argued strongly against the Iraq war as a Senate candidate from Illinois, has repeatedly pointed to Clinton's vote as an example of how experience in Washington doesn't necessarily lead to good judgment.
For his part, Obama strategist David Axelrod said voters will decide whether Clinton can bring the change they are seeking.
"She's made a journey in this campaign — from 'I'm in it to win it' to a message that appropriates ours," he said. "I'm sure we'll have the discussion about who can bring change and who can rally this country to bring common purpose to Washington."