In Iowa, Hillary is welcomed as a teen pop idol

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Pity the jazz band of Des Moines' East High School.

How many times were they asked to launch into a rousing tune to introduce Hillary Clinton only to discover the senator was not quite ready to make her grand entrance into the school gymnasium? How many times did they look to the billowing blue curtains at the side of the hall only to see it was another of her aides rather than the former First Lady herself?

But if Mrs Clinton kept her audience waiting half an hour she had good reason. Such were the numbers of people keen to participate in the senator's first visit to Iowa since announcing her intention to run for president, there was insufficient room in the gym and Mrs Clinton first went to thank those people forced to listen in an overflow room.

"Well, I'm Hillary Clinton," she declared when she finally arrived. "I'm running for president, and I'm in it to win it."

The people of Iowa like to think of themselves as informed and common-sense types, not easily impressed by the throng of politicians who every four years make a pilgrimage to the state because of its status as the first of the primary elections that select a party's presidential candidate.

But on a freezing, crystal-clear afternoon, Mrs Clinton received a rapturous, semi-hysterical reception more befitting a teen pop idol than a woman whom the polls currently put in fourth place in the state. So much for that famous Mid-Western reserve.

The first question from the audience was one that many across the nation must be asking: can a woman win the United States presidency?

Mrs Clinton, seemingly at ease in this "town meeting" setting, replied: "I know there are people who either say or wonder, 'Would we ever elect a woman president'. And I don't think we'll know until we try - and I'm going to try.

"We are good at breaking barriers and going places where no one has gone before. The fact that I'm a woman, the fact that I'm a mom, is part of who I am. But I'm going to ask people to vote for the person they believe would be the best president of the United States."

The event on Saturday afternoon was one of several held across the state this weekend as Mrs Clinton sought to start "a conversation" with the people of Iowa that she and her aides believe will transform her ratings here. While she has perhaps a 20-point advantage over her rivals in national polls, in Iowa she trails the former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards who has made 17 visits in the past two years, Senator Barack Obama and the state's former governor Tom Vilsack.

In reality, at this point - a full 12 months away from the primary election or caucus - such polls mean little. But experts say Mrs Clinton has to spend time letting the people of Iowa know what she stands for. "I think she has a fair amount of work to do," said Professor Peverill Squire, of the University of Iowa's department of political science. "Others have been in Iowa and have been able to build support - John Edwards in particular has never really left ... She has not spent any of her time to court people and they like to be courted."

If Saturday marked the start of that public courtship, it seems Mrs Clinton's come-on will be to portray herself as solid and hard-working. Her answers to questions came with a decent dash of hard facts and details interspersed among the generalities. In particular she talked of her plans for healthcare and education, issues that polls show are of particular concern here.

She was also keen to demonstrate a heartland courtliness. Every questioner received Mrs Clinton's thanks - a Gulf War veteran for his service to the country, a teacher for dedication, a foster parent for his efforts. When another woman introduced herself as a menopausal teacher who had to deal with hormonal teenagers one wondered whether Mrs Clinton was going to thank her for her hot flushes. As it was she responded to the woman's question about how to build communities.

Afterwards the questioner, Terri Hoffman, 53, said she was impressed with what she heard. "I know she is a big supporter of education," she said.

Earlier in the day, at a meeting of state party officials, Mrs Clinton was asked a tougher question when she was asked to explain her 2002 Congressional vote that gave President George Bush the authority to go to war - an issue that bedevilled the party's 2004 candidate, John Kerry. She responded: "I've taken responsibility for my vote. But there are no do-overs in life. I wish there were. I acted on the best judgement I had at the time."

Asked what she had learned from Senator Kerry's campaign, she replied: "When you're attacked, you have to deck your opponents."

Perhaps surprisingly, the one topic about which Mrs Clinton was not asked was the elephant in the gymnasium. Bill Clinton was absent on Saturday but surely he must have been on at least some people's minds as they poured from the hall, most of the audience heaping praise on what they had heard.

There were many questions that she might have been asked. What role would he play if she were to become president, what role will he play in her campaign and whether her opponents will try to use him to attack her?

Clinton off-key but not off-mike

* Hillary Clinton said she expected there would be plenty of comments about her clothes and hairstyle in the months ahead as she campaigned to become president. What she did not perhaps anticipate was criticism of her singing.

But a microphone clipped to Mrs Clinton's suit caught her rendition of the national anthem on Saturday and the unsonorous results were quickly posted on the internet and broadcast by the MSNBC network.

The New York Times was rather generous when it reported: "Her voice was, like that of many Americans, off-key."