DAVENPORT, Iowa - When she was little, Hillary Rodham would sit on a basement bench and pretend she was flying a spaceship to Mars. Her younger brother Hugh, perched behind, would sometimes beg for a chance to be captain.
No dice. "She would always drive, and I would always have to sit in the back," he once told me.
Through all of the years of sitting behind Bill Clinton on his trip to the stars, Hillary fidgeted and elbowed, trying to be co-captain rather than just wingman, or worse, winglady.
Finally, in Iowa, she was once more behind the wheel of her spaceship to Mars. She didn't have to prop up Bill after one of his roguish pratfalls. She didn't have to feign interest in East Wing piffle - table settings and pastry chefs and designer gowns. She didn't have to defer to her male colleagues in the Senate, stepping back to give them the limelight.
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She positively glistened as she talked about how "I" - rather than the "we" of '92 - would run the world.
Humbly, graciously, deftly, she offered Iowa the answer to that eternal question, What Is Hillary Owed?
John Wood, a self-described "plainsman," Republican and machinery-and-tool salesman from Davenport, asked Hillary how she would handle the world's evil and bad men, provoking the slyly ambiguous retort: "What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?"
He said afterward that he was more worried about her ability to face down villains, "being a lady," but conceded, "The woman did good today."
When Geraldine Ferraro made her historic run in '84, she tried to blend a mother's concerns into her foreign policy answers, but it did not work so well once she started getting her nuclear terminology mixed up.
Hillary dealt with the issue head on - "I'm a woman; I'm a mom" - hoping to stir that sisterly vote that Ferraro failed to draw after it turned out that many women were skeptical about one of their own facing down the Soviets.
Unlike Barack Obama, who once said he was bored by the suburbs, she introduced herself in the land of bingo and bacon as a product of the suburbs, wallowing in the minutiae of kitchen-table issues.
The Achilles' heel of "The Warrior," as she is known, is the war. She expressed outrage about Iraq, but ended up sounding like a mother whose teenage son has not cleaned up his room: "The president has said this is going to be left to his successor and I think it's the height of irresponsibility, and I really resent it."
She uttered the most irritating and disingenuous nine words in politics: "If we had known then what we know now."
Jim Webb knew. Barack Obama knew. Even I knew, for Pete's sake. The administration's trickery was clear in real time.
Hillary didn't have the nerve to oppose a popular president on a national security issue after
Sept. 11, and she feared being cast as an anti-war hippie when she ran. Now she feels she can't simply say she made a bad decision. And that makes her seem conniving - not a good mix with nurturing.
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.