Barbara and Hillary fight for nation's votes

ENTER the two contestants for the US presidential election. On the right stands that self-effacing, silver-haired matriarch, Barbara Bush, custodian of a nation's homespun values. On the left - very far to the left - is Hillary Clinton, brassy, radical lawyer and self-appointed scourge of the cookie-baking legions of ordinary American motherhood.

Thus, to anyone who followed last week's Republican convention, might have appeared the race for the White House in this year of family. From the moment her husband's campaign took off nine months ago, Mrs Clinton was plainly going to be a factor. Her outspokenness, her eminent legal career, and her political influence on her husband ensured it could not be otherwise. Quite how much of a factor she would become, however, few would have suspected.

From the moment Pat Buchanan opened proceedings with those sneering references about Hillary's 'radical feminism', her purported encouragement of children to sue their parents, and her supposed likening of the family to legalised slavery, it was clear no holds would be barred. Barbara versus Hillary was a leitmotif of the week.

A few had qualms, but the Republicans were sure they were on a winner. And many Democrats, for all the public howls of indignation, privately agreed. Was not Barbara Bush, after all, the most popular Republican in the land?

The differing choreographies of the two party conventions this summer only underlined the point. In Houston, Mrs Bush was permitted to coo and cluck for almost half an hour on prime-time television. In New York a month earlier, Hillary was kept to the fringe meetings.

And long before that, the Democratic image-makers had been busy remodelling their First Lady- to-be. Gone was her husband's sharp-tongued defender, who, when challenged on his alleged marital peccadilloes, told Americans so memorably, 'Heck, if you don't like him, don't vote for him', and remarked that she could have abandoned her career and 'stayed at home and baked cookies' for Bill.

As the campaign progressed, a new Hillary appeared on American television screens, kinder, gentler and - most important - silent. The cameras would catch her on the podium slightly behind the candidate. Her steadfast, adoring gaze reminded of nothing so much as Nancy Reagan on similar occasions, when the Republicans ruled the world.

Hillary is now back on the talk- show round, rebutting the 'preposterous' slanders of Mr Buchanan. But the style is measured, and the language as pitying as it is firm. Invariably, she is seen alongside the wife of vice-presidential candidate Al Gore, the unassailably wholesome Tipper.

Quite transparently, the notion of Hillary as ogre is designed to scare back into the Republican fold traditionalist Southern voters and blue-collar Democrats who believe a woman's place is in the home - and, more generally, to tar Bill Clinton, the real quarry, with the brush of her perceived liberalism.

But the tactics could easily backfire. Attacking a candidate's spouse is a nasty novelty of presidential campaigns that may alienate other parts of the electorate, not to mention younger, modern women who will be tempted to see the Buchanan forays as merely proof of Republican disdain for their sex.

Hillary Rodham Clinton can take care of herself. Her assailants might glance at the history books. More than half a century ago another First Lady's unflinching activism and egalitarianism earned a similar place in Republican demonology. Her name was Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband Franklin held the White House for a record 13 years. Mr Clinton, of course, is limited to two terms. But in terms of presidential wives, it's not what the Republicans have in mind.

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