DAVENPORT, Iowa – When you’re Hillary Clinton, it seems you never get away from the question of bad men in your life.

Clinton’s musing about her ability to deal with “evil and bad men” punctuated a town hall meeting Sunday as an Iowa audience erupted with delight in imagining who might be on her list.

Wrapping up her inaugural campaign trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, the New York senator was breezing through a friendly, policy-laden question-and-answer session when one person asked her how she would handle the kind of men who rule Iran and North Korea.

“We face lot of dangers in the world and in the gentleman’s words, we face a lot of evil men,” Clinton said in response. “People like Osama bin Laden come to mind.”

She added, with a pause and a shrug of her shoulders that seemed to suggest sarcasm: “What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?”

That drew loud laughter, applause, hoots and whistles from the Democratic audience.

Some said afterward they thought she was referring to her suffering with a philandering husband. Others thought it was meant to conjure up people like President Bush or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Either way, Clinton apparently sensed that it seemed oddly inappropriate for a question about Iran and North Korea to end up a televised laugh fest.

“On a slightly more serious note,” Clinton said, “I believe that a lot in my background and a lot in my public life shows the character and toughness that is required.”

The audience response and Clinton’s own contradictory comments later in the day were unscripted moments in a two-day swing that underscored both her strengths and vulnerabilities as she jumps into the battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The very nature of the crowd’s laughing response to the notion of Clinton and bad men was reminiscent of the empathy many Americans had for her when her husband was caught having an affair with a White House aide. Yet it also served as a reminder that the scandal will follow her.

Facing reporters later, Clinton at first insisted she was thinking only of the serious issues she would face from international threats. Asked again, she said she was thinking about how Bush has failed to produce favorable results in the last six years.

Asked a third time later in the news conference, Clinton acknowledged she was trying to draw a laugh.

“I thought I was funny,” she said. “I get a little funny, and now I’m being psychoanalyzed.”

Told that some in the audience laughed at the thought of Bill Clinton, she said, “Oh, come on. I don’t think anybody in there thought that.”

Beyond the laughter and some warm greetings from fans, Clinton faced pointed questions about issues such as Iraq and health care that suggested she will face many skeptical Democrats in the state that kicks off the nominating process next January.

One asked whether she bore responsibility for the failure in 1993 and 1994 to enact universal health care coverage as she and her husband promised.

“We tried very hard in “93-“94, and we could not put together the political consensus that we needed to make changes,” she said.

She added that she wants universal health care, but has not yet decided whether to pursue it through the existing system of employer-provided insurance, mandating coverage like states do with auto insurance, or going to a government-run program similar to Medicare.

The key, she said, is building the political consensus first, so that the eventual plan cannot be shot down as it was in the 1990s.

For more on her campaign, www.hillaryclinton.com

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