Clinton had voters’ sympathy -- and a message they liked

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Times Staff Writers

. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victory in the New Hampshire primary was born of two disparate forces -- a sympathetic turn by voters, particularly women, who tired of seeing her attacked and a muscular political organization focused on concerns about the economy.

Campaign activists here suggest that the election shifted, at first imperceptibly, in Saturday night’s debate when John Edwards and Barack Obama ganged up on her and when Clinton was faced with another blunt question about her likability.

The shift became more noticeable Monday, when Clinton momentarily welled with tears -- though she did not go off-message -- at a gathering on the campaign’s closing day. Television pictures of the event broadcast endlessly through election day.


“It made her seem like a person getting picked on, and she responded the way a real person would,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire poll.

That rare break in Clinton’s composure -- and the chord it struck in voters -- was particularly compelling to women, whose abandonment of her in the Iowa caucuses led to Obama’s striking victory there. Throughout the week, the same voters had watched as the win by the biracial Obama in mostly white Iowa was greeted as a cultural breakthrough.

“Women got their backs up in New Hampshire and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, our candidate is historic too,’ ” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. “ ‘It’s not just Obama; what about Hillary?’ ”

The symbolism dovetailed with an efficient campaign organization, years in the making, that pressed its voters to the polls. In one working-class ward in downtown Manchester, a staggering 78% of voters turned out, a local official said. Exit polls showed Clinton ran up huge advantages among voters on the poorer end of the economic scale and among those who fear they are falling behind -- an attraction that could help her in states still to vote.

Scala and others noted that Clinton won working-class cities as well as the suburbs of southern New Hampshire around Manchester and Nashua, which were her strongholds.

Clinton was the establishment candidate in New Hampshire, and her success stemmed, in part, from the state’s peculiar political topography. A state of 1.3 million people, it has 400 state representatives and 24 state senators, who serve for a $100 annual stipend and gas money. (California, about 30 times larger, has 120 legislators; by New Hampshire’s standards it would have 12,300.)


Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and co-chair of Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign, on Wednesday recalled walking into the Manchester headquarters recently and seeing two executive counselors -- the equivalent of a Los Angeles County supervisor -- two state senators and two state representatives, all making phone calls for Clinton.

“Someone said to me, ‘If Hillary loses, is that a rejection of the political establishment?’ ” Sullivan said. “What people don’t understand is that in New Hampshire our Legislature is so large, these are people out there in the community. They’re not like distant establishment figures we never see. They live right next door to you.”

Pressure was coming not only from next door but also from the wallet. As national pundits talked of the historic significance of Obama’s surge in statewide polls, voters were thinking of something else: their economic fears.

With the stock market tumbling, the dollar falling, mortgages going belly up, gas and healthcare costs rising, Clinton hammered at voters’ concerns about the economy. Those worries trumped, it would turn out, Obama’s elegant discourses on national unity.

“These are such bread-and-butter issues, and people saw Hillary talking about the economy, about the need to create jobs, about the cost of fuel, about the loss of manufacturing jobs,” Sullivan said. “She talked about all those economic issues in a very detailed way. People responded to that.”

But it may not have been enough without the odd turns in the campaign’s last 72 hours.

On Saturday, the Democrats met at St. Anselm College in Manchester. Clinton, rocked by her third-place finish in Iowa, shrugged off her above-the-fray demeanor of past debates and portrayed Obama as a flip-flopper. Obama took on Clinton’s typical role. Most important, Edwards chose to throw in his lot with Obama and accused Clinton of changing her tune on Obama because she was losing.


A short time later, questioner Scott Spradling, political director for Manchester’s WMUR television station, asked Clinton what she was going to do about voters who hesitated to side with her “on the likability issue.”

“Well, that hurts my feelings,” Clinton said, to laughter from the crowd.

The exchange did not come across as an insult; Clinton a day later signed a card bearing Spradling’s question: “Scott, you are likable. Thanks. Hillary.”

But the debate appeared to have softened voters’ views of her. Two days later, when a gentle question from a woman in a coffee house -- “How do you do it?” -- brought a noticeable sheen to Clinton’s eyes, they paid attention. A candidate who has long been criticized as robotic had become human, strategists said.

“These events touched a special nerve and chord -- for every woman who has ever earned less than a man in the workplace, who has ever been denied a promotion or who has failed to receive credit for her work, this struck an important and human note,” pollster Peter Hart said in an e-mail titled “Making Sense of New Hampshire.” “Suddenly, Hillary Clinton became a vehicle for their lives.”

Polls did not catch her last-day surge because most stopped surveying on Sunday, before the debate had sunk in and the tears had welled. But the current of victory was apparent in a survey taken of voters leaving the polls. For several days after Iowa, voters moved toward Obama. On Tuesday, at the last possible moment, the tide turned back to Clinton.



Decker reported from Los Angeles and Barabak from New Hampshire.