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Hillary Clinton’s new campaign strategy is she’s now taking questions

Hillary Rodham Clinton, pictured at a town-hall meeting in Nashua, N.H., has begun holding more events that feature questions from voters and the media.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, pictured at a town-hall meeting in Nashua, N.H., has begun holding more events that feature questions from voters and the media.

(C.J. Gunther / European Pressphoto Agency)

Three months into her second presidential bid, Hillary Rodham Clinton has succeeded at an important goal – pivoting away from a highly restricted campaign style that threatened to cut her off from voters in key early-voting states.

When Clinton started her campaign after announcing her candidacy in April, she stuck to small, tightly controlled events accessible to only a few voters and seldom opened herself to questions from the public or the media. Her unwillingness to answer questions became a prominent talking point for Republican opponents, and the closed-off nature of the campaign threatened to become an issue in New Hampshire and Iowa, the states that hold the first two contests in the nomination process.

By contrast, in four days of campaigning through both states starting last weekend, Clinton conducted three informal news conferences; held a town-hall meeting in which she took questions from voters; gave interviews to three local media outlets in New Hampshire; and dove into crowds, taking pictures with voters, unfettered by rope lines.

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Campaign officials, who had said earlier this year that they expected to see Clinton shift to a more open approach by midsummer, say that in the several weeks since her first full-scale campaign rally on New York’s Roosevelt Island, Clinton has done more than 20 interviews with news organizations, mostly in states with early primary contests.

“The initial focus was on having conversations with primary and caucus voters at small events,” said campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson. “She’s now taking questions” in larger settings, he said, “and she’s enjoying them.”

The new openness has been particularly notable because Clinton stuck to it despite renewed attention late last week to her use of private email while secretary of State.

After news reports about an investigation into whether any of the emails she received or sent had included information that should have been considered classified, some of Clinton’s aides worried she would be driven back into the kind of defensive crouch that has sometimes characterized her interactions with the media. Instead, Clinton deflected the issue with a joking remark that pointed out significant inaccuracies in the initial news reports.

“Maybe the heat is getting to everybody,” she said.

Clinton has not suddenly become a loose and informal candidate – although seemingly more relaxed than earlier in the campaign, she remains a cautious politician who sticks to a disciplined script. Moreover, a more open approach to campaigning does not solve all the challenges she faces, which include invigorated opposition from the Democratic Party’s left, a drop in some important measurements in polls and the continuing investigations of her email use.

But neither is the shift just a matter of atmospherics. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are used to personal contact with candidates and view it as necessary to their role in the winnowing process. The grumbling generated by Clinton’s initial failure to provide that sort of widespread access was one factor in creating an opening for her principal opponent in the Democratic primaries, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

By contrast, this week’s campaign swing generated extensive, favorable coverage in both states, including prominent stories highlighting interviews with local reporters.

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The more-open campaigning is “what Iowans expect,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “They don’t want everything by invitation only because that seems exclusive. They want everything up close and personal.”

The state’s voters “are horribly spoiled,” she said, but also take “very seriously” their longtime role as the opening round of the nominating process – both observations that apply to New Hampshire residents, as well.

“They really feel like they have a role vetting candidates for the rest of the country,” Bystrom said. “They want to see the candidate, hear the stump speech. They also want to be able to ask questions and want to get to know the candidate and know their personality, whether they like them or not.”

Greater openness poses its own risks, of course, particularly when voters ask questions the candidate does not want to answer.

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On Tuesday at a town hall in Nashua, N.H., Bruce Blodgett, a software engineer, asked Clinton to give a yes-or-no answer on whether she supports the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Many environmental activists see the pipeline, which is designed to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands deposits to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, as a prime threat to the stability of the global climate.

Clinton declined to do so, saying that whether to give Keystone a federal permit was President Obama’s call, and that she wasn’t “going to second-guess him.”

“If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question,” she added – a line seized on by both Sanders and Republicans.

Clinton expanded on that answer later in response to questions from reporters, saying that it would be “inappropriate” for her to “prejudge” the issue because she was Obama’s secretary of State when the years-long review of the Keystone project began.

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Whatever the downside of leaving some questioners disappointed, however, it’s likely outweighed by the positive attention that spontaneous interactions with voters and their families can generate for a candidate. About 45 minutes after Blodgett’s inquiry, Clinton gave a girl in the audience who is about to enter fifth grade the chance to ask the last question of the town hall.

The girl, Emily Wall, asked whether she could shake hands with the “first woman president.” For the next 24 hours, pictures of a beaming Clinton posing with her 10-year-old fan dominated news reports across the state.

Lauter reported from New Hampshire and Mehta from Des Moines.

For more on politics, follow @DavidLauter and @LATSeema.

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