TAMPA — Forget Hillary Rodham Clinton vs. Sarah Palin.
The former first lady made it clear Monday night at a boisterous campaign rally in Tampa that she will be a forceful advocate for Barack Obama against John McCain but that she won't play the role of anti-Palin attack dog.
"I think people are proud that the Republicans have a woman on the ticket. The Democrats did it in 1984. It took awhile, but the Republicans got around to doing it this year, and I think that's a great milestone for us as a nation," Clinton said in a news conference where she was peppered with questions about McCain's new running mate. "It comes down to what the people are advocating for, what they believe in, what they will do were they given the trust of the White House. The case is abundantly clear that we need to elect Barack Obama and Joe Biden."
Clinton's one-day swing through Orlando and Tampa marked the New York senator's first campaign appearance since McCain shook up the race by naming Alaska Gov. Palin as his vice presidential nominee. With a new Washington Post poll showing McCain has gained nine percentage points among white women since picking Palin, reporters weren't the only ones wondering how Clinton would address the newest woman running for the White House.
"Tell us about Palin!" someone shouted from a crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered to see Clinton at All Peoples Life Center gymnasium in northeast Hillsborough County.
She didn't bite. Instead, Clinton shrugged her shoulders and carried on with her broad argument that the choice is clear this election: "I don't think that's what this election is about. … Anybody that believes the Republicans can fix the mess they created probably believes the iceberg could have saved the Titanic."
The only nod she made to Palin came in adding two words to a signature line from her speech at the Democratic National Convention.
"No way. No how. No McCain. No Palin!" she said to roars.
Thanks to a Democratic boycott of Florida's unauthorized primary, Monday also marked Clinton's first Tampa Bay area campaign stop of the presidential campaign. Clinton handily won the Jan. 29 primary, and had it counted from the start, the outcome of the nomination could well have been different.
Republicans are hoping Palin might win over disillusioned Clinton supporters and other female voters, but Clinton said that her latest Florida swing had little to do with Palin and that she was aggressively helping Obama before the vice presidential picks.
"I have probably done more for Sen. Obama long before the conventions than anyone in my position ever has," she told reporters. "I have gone on numerous trips, raised money, had conference calls — what you do when you're actively supporting someone and I intend to continue doing that. Nothing has really changed."
The diverse audience was filled with Clinton supporters, but few if any said Palin made them more likely to consider McCain.
"They're just trying to play off race and gender," said Beverly Mathews, a 55-year-old social worker from Town 'N Country. "I'm all for change, and I do not think Sarah Palin is change."
Still, there are signs Obama has work to do.
Nancy Hoppe, a top Clinton organizer in Pinellas County, said she surveyed many of the most ardent Clinton backers she knows and finds plenty remain unsold on the nominee.
"While most party activists are on board for Obama, the strong-willed, more independent Democrats and independents are holding out in large numbers," Hoppe said. "They are still mad and just plain don't trust or believe Barack Obama or his campaign. … Some will vote for McCain and others will not vote at all."
Before Clinton spoke, Dara Leslie, a 50-year-old business owner from Tampa, said she still had doubts about Obama.
"I'm sick of hearing the same old 'change' words," she said. "I want to hear their platform, their ideas, what they're going to do."
Clinton, greeted by "Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!'' chants, said a vote for Obama is a vote to continue what she has been fighting for all her life.
"This is bigger than any one person. It's way bigger than Barack or me. This is about whether we will have the future our country deserves," said Clinton, giving a full-throated endorsement of Obama.
"I have seen his passion and determination, his grace and his wit," she said. "He has lived the American dream, and that is why he will use his incredible intelligence and power to make sure the American dream is alive and well."
The Tampa Bay area is the biggest battleground region of Florida, and McCain is scheduled to return next week. On Monday, he'll be at the Jacksonville fairgrounds for a pancake breakfast. Next Tuesday, he'll hold a rally at the Tampa Convention Center. Doors open at 9:30 a.m.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.