Sen. Hillary Clinton is dodging bullets. Not from Bosnian snipers but political opponents and pundits who have assailed her recent "misstatements" about a trip to Bosnia 12 years ago.
An apparent contradiction in statements Clinton made about a 1996 trip to Bosnia as first lady, which she claimed last week included the threat of sniper fire before later recanting, has raised the specter of dishonesty and untrustworthiness that has plagued her campaign from its beginning.
The backlash put Clinton on the defensive early this week, and not for the first time. Her campaign dealt with a perception of dishonesty long before the Bosnia trip became an issue.
In a USA Today/Gallup poll from March 16, 44 percent of Americans polled called Clinton "honest and trustworthy," compared to 67 percent and 63 percent respectively for Sen. John McCain, R–Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D–Ill.
In an ABC News exit poll after the most recent primary March 11, half of Mississippi Democratic voters said Clinton was not honest and trustworthy. By contrast, 70 percent of voters found Obama honest and trustworthy votes.
Part of Clinton's perceived untrustworthiness no doubt stems from her association with her husband, former President Clinton, who was embroiled in a 1998 sex scandal with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
As the campaign season began heating up, even former supporters questioned the couple's honesty.
"Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling," one-time supporter and Hollywood mogul David Geffen said of the Clintons in The New York Times in February 2007.
Voters may not be able to enumerate the lies the Clintons have told -- excluding perhaps Bill Clinton's denial and then admission of the Lewinsky affair -- but there is a perception that they have a reputation for lying, said Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist and ABC News political consultant.
"There is a perception among voters that there is an honesty problem with the Clintons. In polls they both rate poorly on honesty and trustworthiness," Dowd said.
"Voters have come to a belief about them, and it matters little how much real evidence there actually is. Hillary raises people's suspicion levels because she carries her husband's baggage. People see her and think to themselves, 'are we going back to these same problems?'"
The latest flap pits Clinton's words of last week about the 1996 plane landing in the restive city of Tuzla, Bosnia, that she said involved a threat of snipers against the words of her 2003 autobiography, which describe the same trip in less than action-packed prose.
"I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia," Clinton said last week. "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."
Portraying herself as a battle-hardened foreign policy expert, Clinton has referenced that dash across the tarmac under the threat of snipers at several campaign stops.
But after CBS News aired video Monday that showed her on the tarmac receiving flowers from young girls, Clinton dialed down her language.
On Monday, the New York Democrat told the Philadelphia Daily News that she "misspoke" about the way she was received in Bosnia and that "we had to land a certain way and move quickly because of the threat of sniper fire," but no actual shots were fired at her.
She has since referred people to a passage from her autobiography and insisted she merely misspoke for the first time in 12 years.
"You know I have written about this and described it in many different settings, and I did misspeak the other day. This has been a very long campaign. Occasionally, I am a human being like everybody else," she told Pittsburgh radio station KDKA on Tuesday. "… I have written about it in my book and talked about it on many other occasions, and last week, you know, for the first time in 12 or so years I misspoke."
Sensing the opportunity, Obama's camp sent out an e-mail Monday that included links to CBS' footage of Clinton's trip.
Mom Made It Up
Clinton said she had not "misspoke" in 12 years. That is enough time to clear her of an incident in 1995 in which upon meeting Sir Edmund Hillary in Nepal, she told The New York Times that she had been named for the famous climber of Mount Everest. When it was later discovered that Clinton was born six years before Hillary's summit of the mountain, Clinton said it was a story her mother had made up.
In 2000, Clinton apologized for categorizing the shooting of an unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police a "murder."
"I misspoke," she said on WNBC's "News Forum" Feb. 13, 2000. "That was just a misstatement on my part," she said.
The Candidate Stands Alone
Despite Clinton's inexorable connection to her husband, supporters quickly note that it is she who is running for president and not the Clintons.
"Sen. Hillary Clinton is running for president. Not the Clintons. She should be judged on her own merits," said Lanny Davis, a former Bill Clinton adviser and author of "Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself."
"Excluding President Clinton's private conduct, for which he has condemned himself more harshly than anyone else, I defy someone to come up with real evidence of a lie or untruth the Clintons have told," said Davis. "We're hearing language like 'untruthful' and 'secretive' coming from the Obama camp, but there is nothing to back it up."