PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULSen. Hillary Clintonaddresses her audienceduring a fundraisingluncheon at thePalace Hotel in SanFrancisco on Friday.
PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL Sen. Hillary Clinton addresses her audience during a fundraising luncheon at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on Friday. (Ray Chavez - Staff)
SAN FRANCISCO — Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton told well-heeled contributors Friday she's running primarily, not as a woman, but as a person with the experience and skills to turn the nation around.

That sentiment didn't keep the crowd from roaring its assent when Ellen Malcolm of EMILY's List, the huge national political action committee supporting pro-choice Democratic women, asked, "Are you ready to elect the first woman president of the United States?"

As has the whole campaign of the Democratic senator from New York, Friday's event walked that delicate line between accentuating and downplaying her candidacy's historic aspect. Clinton's enormous name recognition and fundraising ability have many pundits calling her a frontrunner for the nomination — a first for any woman — yet she's being careful to emphasize her experience, policy stances and other merits, gender aside.

"The excitement and support are very gratifying," she said, adding that to those asking whether America is ready to elect a woman president, she responds, "We won't know until we try."

On Friday she attracted a few hundred contributors paying at least $2,500 each to attend a VIP reception and almost 1,200 paying at least $250 each for what morphed from a table-oriented lunch into a town hall-style meeting with sushi-and-salad bag lunches on each chair.

It also attracted about 15 anti-war protesters, who stood outside the Palace Hotel berating Clinton for not admitting as a mistake her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war, and for refusing to cut off funding for the war now. Five protesters slipped into the event and stood during her speech: first three, silently, and later two more, chanting anti-war slogans. All were escorted out and arrested; Clinton didn't miss a beat.

"I'm in it to win it because I believe we can do so much better than we have, and I know America is ready for achange," Clinton told the crowd. She added that "change" means incentivizing alternative, domestic energy, restoring the country's international stature "and, yes, we do have to end the war in Iraq."

She said she hopes her campaign sends a message that "the days of denial, the days of indecision, the days of politics as usual are over," and that issues from global warming to universal health care will come to the fore. "We're going to awaken like a roaring giant, and we're going to be prepared to do what it takes."

On the world stage, she said, America needs "a president who will begin to repair the damage, reach out to the rest of the world" with diplomacy and benevolence rather than military might alone.

She said she and other senators are trying "to begin to rein this president in," and she believes the number of our troops in Iraq must be capped; our troops there and everywhere else must be adequately equipped; and the Iraqi government must be made to know it no longer has "a blank check" and faces loss of U.S. funding if it doesn't take concrete steps to stabilize its own nation.

Clinton blasted President Bush's foreign policy at large, saying it makes no sense to refuse to talk to "bad people."

"In some of the situations we find ourselves in, we wouldn't have anyone to talk to," she quipped, noting that America maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union through all the threats and proxy wars of the Cold War decades.

Bay Area members ofthe anti-war groupCODEPINK wereescorted out afterholding up signsduring the fundraiser.
Bay Area members of the anti-war group CODEPINK were escorted out after holding up signs during the fundraiser. (Ray Chavez - Staff)
Just as America reached out to the populace behind the Iron Curtain, she said, it now must engage Iran and Syria as major players in their region.

On the domestic front, she said, she believes Americans are ready to heed a call to action and sacrifice. She said she will not only push a universal health care plan but also urge Americans to take better care of themselves. She will not only advance an energy policy under which companies contribute to a strategic energy fund but also urge Americans to conserve more, as California has for decades, she said.

The first question from the audience was whether Clinton would name her husband, former President Bill Clinton, secretary of state.

"You're not the first person to ask me this. ... He is the most popular person in the world right now," she said, adding that although she's not sure whether presidents can still name relatives to their Cabinet, she would continue the tradition of having former presidents serve as America's goodwill ambassadors to the world.

Clinton said she wants to "help re-imagine and redesign how we do education," moving away from a cookie-cutter approach toward something better serving individuals. That means everything from more preschool programs to more Pell Grant money and need-based college scholarships.

She called affordable housing "one of the biggest problems across our country," and said the nation must protect existing public housing programs from budget cuts while giving incentives for building owner- and renter-occupied affordable housing.

State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said he was present Friday as an admirer, if not yet an endorser. "I've made no decisions yet," he said, although Clinton has "among the strongest credentials to run the country." He said he hasn't been to any other Democrats' presidential campaign events so far.

State Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, also said it's too early to endorse. "I think all of us are looking forward to a great campaign season with a surfeit of great candidates," she said, but added that when it comes to Clinton, "the question would be 'Why not?' for vast numbers of women."

From San Francisco, Clinton went to Google's Mountain View headquarters for a private meeting with Silicon Valley leaders. She held a series of Hollywood fundraisers Thursday.

Read the Political Blotter at InsideBayArea.com.