In N.H., Ties Clintons Forged Will Be Tested
Sunday, December 16, 2007
PLAISTOW, N.H., Dec. 15 -- Faced with the prospect of defeat in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is counting on the foundation she and her husband built in this state over the past decade and a half, forged around Bill Clinton's "comeback kid" finish in the 1992 Democratic primary and years of assiduous tending to their relationship with New Hampshire voters.
Yet there are signs that all the time spent building connections and nourishing the memories of 1992 in the state with the first-in-the nation primary will not necessarily be enough to make New Hampshire the bulwark that Clinton might need against an early setback. Last week, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) closed to a tie with Clinton in several opinion polls here, after being behind by 20 percentage points only three months ago. Some of the same people who jumped aboard Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign here and were later rewarded with administration positions or White House invitations say that won't automatically translate into support for Sen. Clinton this time around.
"The fact of the matter is, they are two different people," said James McConaha, a Concord Democrat who campaigned around the country for Bill Clinton after the 1992 primary and later was made director of the state branch of the federal Farm Service Agency, but is now backing Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "Not that their positions on issues are different, which they might be. It's that they are really two different people. They are dramatically different, in my opinion."
The strength of the Clinton-New Hampshire bond is looming ever larger as next month's voting approaches. In Iowa, where Bill Clinton did not campaign in 1992, Sen. Clinton and Obama are essentially tied in opinion polls. Should she lose there on Jan. 3, she will head into the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary in much the same situation that her husband did in 1992, hoping to see her campaign righted in the Granite State. Buffeted at the time by allegations of draft-dodging and marital infidelity, Bill Clinton had implored New Hampshire voters to look past all that and promised to stick with them "until the last dog dies." After finishing a solid second, he proclaimed himself resurrected.
Clinton campaign officials express confidence that she will prevail in the state, saying they expected all along that the race would tighten, just as it did in 2000 when Al Gore faced a tough fight with Bill Bradley. One reason they remain upbeat, they say, is the support for Clinton going back to her arrival in the state 16 years ago.
"The personal relationship makes people more engaged, and more willing to step up to help rather than just being passive," said Nick Clemons, Clinton's New Hampshire campaign director. "It insulates you from the ups and downs of the campaign, because people feel they know her already."
Yet some Clinton supporters are anxious. One staunch Clinton backer, a former elected official in the state, felt alarm on visiting Obama's headquarters in Manchester to pick up tickets for a friend for Oprah Winfrey's appearance with Obama last weekend and seeing how much "buzz" there was there. "I'm nervous. Obama's campaign feels like Jack Kennedy's. They seem so excited," said the supporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the campaign had not authorized the comments. "When I call Hillary's headquarters, there's no electricity. It's scary."
Clinton's New Hampshire firewall has been long in the making. After winning the presidency, Bill Clinton appointed a disproportionate number of Democrats from this small state to his administration. New Hampshire Democrats received so many invitations to White House Christmas and St. Patrick's Day parties that they grew jaded. "People would say, 'I've been to three Christmas receptions at the White House. I just can't go to another,' " said J. Joseph Grandmaison, a former state party chairman whom Clinton named director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.
The unlikely close relationship between a former Arkansas governor brimming with Southern charm and a state known for its flintiness continued throughout Clinton's two terms. He carried the state twice in the general election. He or his advisers often called their contacts in the state to discuss local politics. In his final days in office, he made a farewell trip to thank the state for launching him in 1992. He urged Gore to consider then-New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen as his running mate in 2000. Cynics speculated that the grooming of the state was done with an eye toward a future Hillary Clinton bid. But supporters here say it was a simple expression of gratitude.
"They like New Hampshire," said Kathy Sullivan, a former state party chairwoman who is backing Sen. Clinton. "Bill loves people. Hillary loves people, too, and they liked staying in touch with people they became friendly with."
To stoke recollections of the good times, the Clinton campaign has dispatched the former president on several trips to the state. In Keene two weeks ago, he harkened back to a visit to the town in his 1992 campaign, when he showed up simply hoping to draw enough people to "avoid total humiliation" and instead found an over-capacity crowd of 400. It was "the first time I ever really thought I had a chance to win," he said.
It is not hard to find voters for whom the bond holds firm. Priscilla Clark traces her support for Sen. Clinton to 1992, when the Clintons stopped by St. Paul's School in Concord, where Clark's husband was headmaster. "I have liked her ever since I was first conscious of her and first met her with her husband. I just liked her personally. She seemed like an extremely bright, capable and thoughtful person," Clark said. She added: "At the beginning, she didn't give a hoot about how she looked, which is a good point for me. She always stood for good things."