Mrs Clinton praised the school as an example of public-sector reform at its finest (the school has broken itself up into three smaller schools, introduced longer school days and longer school years, and done all this with the co-operation of the teachers unions). She talked about what Americas cities could achieve if only they had a partner in Washington, DC. And, unlike many of her Democratic opponents, she went out of her way to praise the presidents No Child Left Behind Act, claiming that the problems stemmed from shortage of funds rather than the principle of accountability.
Yet, there was something missing. The school hall was only three-quarters full. The audience consisted mostly of middle-aged or elderly ladies. There was little buzz. The place came to life only when a phalanx of local Democratic dignitaries, led by Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the congresswoman for the 11th congressional district, marched into the hall moments before Mrs Clinton arrived.
Joseph Grassy, a local Democrat who arrived late but nevertheless found a seat near the front, pronounced the event a damp squib compared with a recent Obama happening. Barack Obama had attracted thousands of peopleso many that an overflow crowd watched his performance on video screens. The atmosphere was electric. Mrs Clintons desultory numbers were padded out with operatives who owed their careers to the Democratic Party. But it is Mrs Clinton who is comfortably ahead of her main rival, with (say most polls) a double-digit lead.
Mrs Clinton is the most puzzling of the current crop of presidential candidates. Her front-runner status for the Democratic nomination, in a year in which the Republicans are in turmoil, not to say meltdown, reflects impressive strengths. These start with experience. She spent eight years in the White House in what Bill Clinton once called a two for the price of one presidency. She is a popular and successful senator for the countrys third-biggest state, re-elected last year with a thumpingly increased vote. She also controls one of the two great political machines in American politics (the other belongs to the Bush dynasty): a machine that can boast from brilliant strategists, like Mark Penn, to excoriating critics of her enemies, like Sidney Blumenthal.
Yet she also has striking weaknesses. A leading Republican strategist describes her as strong but brittle. She comes with more political baggage than any senior Democrat who is not named Kennedy. Her husband has a long record of suicidally risky sexual dalliance.
Mrs Clinton is the one candidate who could transform the presidential election from an unloseable referendum on Republican failure into a vote on a Democratic candidate about whom almost everyone has strong feelings, many of them intensely hostile.
The oddities do not stop there. Mrs Clinton is the best known of the presidential candidates. She first came to national attention almost 40 years ago when she was the first student to give the commencement address at Wellesley, earning a seven-minute ovation for her efforts. Her autobiography, Living History, sold a couple of million copies. There is a shelf-load of Hillary-related books such as The Case for Hillary Clinton, which suggests that she is the answer to her partys dreams, and The Truth About Hillary, which insinuates that she is a lesbian. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, is publishing a 640-page biography, A Woman in Charge, next month. Yet she is also surprisingly elusive. This is partly because she has a habit of repositioning herselfmoving to the political centre as senator for New York and then (in some regards, at least) back to the left as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. Hot for the Iraq invasion in 2003, she blows increasingly cold on Iraq today, though she has never gone so far as to disavow her vote in favour of the war.
But there is more to it than that. As one of the most prominent female baby-boomers, Mrs Clinton is whatever people want to see in her. She is lionised by feminists and demonised by cookie-baking traditionalists. The reality is that she was never exactly the baby-boom radical of legend. She is actually a fairly strait-laced type (certainly when compared with her husband and the young wastrel who became George Bush), who once considered becoming a Methodist minister, and who dutifully followed her husband to Arkansas, subordinating her own career to his.
The road back to the White House Mrs Clintons path to the Democratic nomination will be no cakewalk. Mr Obama has striking political talents, most notably a public charisma that Mrs Clinton lacks, and John Edwards has formidable political machines in Iowa, where he consistently tops opinion polls, and in South Carolina, where he was born. But any betting man would still have to go with her. Her lead in the polls has been sustained for many months, and has lately been widening. She stood head and shoulders above all her rivals, notably scoring points off Mr Obama, who seemed lightweight and unsure in comparison, during the first, and so far only, Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina last month.
Mrs Clinton also enjoys a strong lead among one of her partys most important constituencies, white blue-collar workers. Polls consistently show her leading Mr Obama by at least two to one among whites without college degrees. Mr Obama is a hero to those comfortably-off liberals who tune in to National Public Radio, a preacher-politician who seems to represent hope and racial reconciliation. But Mrs Clinton has the edge when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes issues that matter more to blue-collar Americans. If your child is trapped in a bad urban school, if your health care is crushingly expensive, if you are in danger of losing your job, then you may well look to the practical Mrs Clinton rather than the rhetorical Mr Obama. Among black voters, though, her early strong lead has eroded in favour of Mr Obama.
What about the general election of November 2008 The most common worry about Mrs Clinton, apart from her husbands extra-curricular activities, is that she is simply too polarising a candidate to win. Undoubtedly she makes enemies: a Gallup poll on May 8th gave her a 47% unfavourable rating compared with 50% favourable. But this will not necessarily be enough to sink her. Mr Bush won in 2004 despite being one of the most divisive presidents in American history. Mrs Clinton does not need to get everybody to love her (though she has done a surprisingly good job of winning over independents and even Republicans in New York state). And to win in 2008, she needs to win only one mid-sized state on top of John Kerrys tally. Here Mrs Clintons appearance in Cleveland is significant. Mr Kerry had no organisation in Ohio six months before the general election; Mrs Clinton has already made Ms Tubbs Jones the co-chair of her campaign.
Mrs Clinton has plenty of assets that compensate for her polarising reputation. She is one of the most disciplined politicians in the businessa huge advantage in the age of YouTube. She is also one of the most sharp-elbowed, battle-tested in the politics of personal destruction. It is impossible to imagine her being swiftboated like Mr Kerry. The Clintons have always regarded politics as a continuation of war by other means, and Mrs Clinton is an even tougher fighter than her husband.
And what if she wins What sort of president will she make Her supporters like to point to two clear strengths. The first is her experience in both the White House and Congress. The second is her inheritance of the centrist Clintonian creedwhich accepts the importance of the market but argues that the government needs to intervene to help the losers.
Neither of these two arguments is wholly persuasive, however. Mrs Clinton seems to be no more endowed with natural political judgment than she is with innate charisma. After all, she is responsible for one of the greatest domestic-policy debacles of recent yearsan appallingly mismanaged health-care reform plan (Hillarycare), which fell apart as soon as it reached a Democratic Congress and handed a huge political present to the Republicans just in time for the 1994 mid-term elections. Mrs Clinton is also already showing a worrying willingness to sacrifice her Third Way principles to appease the Democratic base. She sounds much more critical of free trade than her husband was in the early 1990s, when the economy was in much worse shape.
Nor is she particularly well equipped to bring reconciliation at home. Her biggest weakness is that she means more of the same when it comes to the vicious partisanship that so mars American politics. Her arrival in the White House would force America to live through a continuation of a bad-tempered soap opera that began in 1992. Politics as restoration leaves a great deal to be desiredmore so when it is the second restoration in a row.
Mrs Clinton looks a great deal stronger on international affairs, the area in which the president has most room to manoeuvre and, these days, the area where a sure hand is most sorely needed. She exudes a sense that she is tough enough to defend Americas interests. But at the same time she emphasises the importance of restocking Americas soft power and repairing its relations with the rest of the world.
Any Democratic winner will be able to tap into a huge store of goodwill abroad. But Mrs Clinton is better positioned than her rivals to harness this goodwill. She visited more than 80 countries during her years as first lady. She is a consummate networker (meet her briefly at one of the global confabs that she likes to attend and you may well receive a hand-written note saying how interesting it was to talk to you.) Mrs Clinton has also produced the eminently sensible idea of turning her husband, one of the worlds most popular politicians, into a roaming ambassador for America. If anti-Americanism is the most troubling of Mr Bushs legacies, Mrs Clinton is probably the best equipped candidate to deal with it.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007