(Washingtonpost.com) This story was written by Anne E. Kornblut and Jon Cohen.
Lost in the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign's aggressive attacks on Barack Obama in recent days is a deep and enduring problem that threatens to undercut any inroads Clinton has made in her struggle to overtake him in the Democratic presidential race: She has lost trust among voters, a majority of whom now view her as dishonest.
Her advisers' efforts to deal with the problem -- by having her acknowledge her mistakes and crack self-deprecating jokes -- do not seem to have succeeded. Privately, the aides admit that the recent controversy over her claim to have ducked sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia probably made things worse.
Clinton is viewed as "honest and trustworthy" by just 39 percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared with 52 percent in May 2006. Nearly six in 10 said in the new poll that she is not honest and trustworthy. And now, compared with Obama, Clinton has a deep trust deficit among Democrats, trailing him by 23 points as the more honest, an area on which she once led both Obama and John Edwards.
Among Democrats, 63 percent called her honest, down 18 points from 2006; among independents, her trust level has dropped 13 points, to 37 percent. Republicans held Clinton in low regard on this in the past (23 percent called her honest two years ago), but it is even lower now, at 16 percent. Majorities of men and women now say the phrase does not apply to Clinton; two years ago, narrow majorities of both did.
Advisers argue that her positive ratings have dipped as she has been defined by her opponents -- a normal campaign occurrence -- and that her honesty problem reflects the pounding she took from Republicans in the 1990s. But the Bosnia incident and the way the campaign handled it have left advisers divided over what a candidate can do after such a steep drop in trust.
Some of her aides believe that after Clinton told the Bosnia story -- of having run from her military aircraft into a hangar to avoid sniper fire -- when television images of the event showed otherwise, the campaign had no choice but to say she "misspoke." Communications director Howard Wolfson first did so on a conference call with reporters, and Clinton repeated the explanation over the course of several days.
Other Clinton advisers thought that response did not come quickly enough -- and that when it did, without further explanation or talking points for surrogates to use, it only worsened the perception that she had lied. Making the situation more difficult was a split within the campaign over whether Clinton had exaggerated, or simply confused the landing with another trip. One Clinton insider announced in a strategy meeting it was ridiculous to have imagined the first lady ever having been in danger, or for Clinton to have thought she was -- a slap at the senator from New York that other advisers described as disrespectful.
At the same time, die-hard Clinton loyalists thought her communications operation did not defend her heartily enough, which press aides said they thought was impossible. "Continuing to say it did happen when it didn't happen is not a strategy," one adviser said.
The problem was exacerbated when Bill Clinton, in defending her confused memory of the Bosnia event, got key details of the incident wrong, before later saying his wife had told him to stay out of it.
Two staffers from the Clinton White House years, Lissa Muscatine and Melanne Verveer, wrote a New York Times op-ed article recalling the perils of the trip, trying to justify why Clinton had gotten the story wrong. "As has been reported, Mrs. Clinton's trip to Bosnia included a U.S.O. component with the comedian Sinbad and the singer Sheryl Crow. The helicopters that carried them to performances at American base camps zigzagged just above the trees to avoid potential ground fire, according to Carey Cavanaugh, who was then a State Department official traveling with Sinbad, and helicopters flew alongside to deal with the threat of anti-aircraft fire or snipers. These facts explain why many of us, including the first lady, believed that the conditions on the ground were precarious. We were worried about sniper fire and were prepared to rush off the tarmac when we landed," they wrote.
Senior Clinton advisers argued that the Bosnia story would not have developed the way it did if it were not for a story line about Clinton that goes back to the 1990s, when scandals involving the first lady, including the firings in the White House travel office and her financial dealings, resulted in widespread doubts about her trustworthiness. That framework, they argue, made it easier for Clinton to be perceived as dishonest, a problem that first arose in her presidential campaign in a debate last fall when she gave conflicting answers on whether she supports allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
The new poll suggests that much of her problem is with men. Nearly two-thirds of men said Clinton is not honest and trustworthy (an increase of 19 points), compared with 53 percent of women (up 12 points). Democratic men, in particular, have shifted: About four in 10 now do not believe Clinton to be honest and trustworthy, nearly triple the percentage saying so in 2006.
The percentage calling Clinton honest has dropped steeply among whites with higher incomes and levels of education. And while majorities of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents across demographic lines said she is honest and trustworthy, the class divisions remain: The percentage of white Democrats without college degrees calling Clinton honest hardly budged in two years, while those with college degrees have dropped off significantly on the question (from 82 percent to 53 percent).
Among whites, the percentage saying Clinton is honest and trustworthy has declined 10 points, compared with 26 points among nonwhites. That number has declined more sharply among liberals (down 30 points) than among moderates (down 13) or conservatives (down 4 points). Head to head with Obama on honesty among Democrats, Clinton faces a 23-point deficit overall, 17 points among whites and nearly 50 points among African Americans.
Cohen reported from Washington. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.