'She Touched a Lot of People'

Supporters looked on as Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Saturday at the National Building Museum that she was dropping out of the Democratic race.
Supporters looked on as Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Saturday at the National Building Museum that she was dropping out of the Democratic race. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

DUNCANSVILLE, Pa. -- Five family members gathered last Thursday afternoon in their living room, shades drawn, to remember. They sat in big, cushioned chairs and shared stories to fight their sadness. There was the time Hillary asked them for money, and they cobbled together about $50 even though they couldn't spare it. Or the time Hillary encouraged them to walk door to-door around the neighborhood, and they overcame shyness and spent the afternoon laughing with new friends.

"She touched a lot of people," said Theresa Gropelli, 43, who spoke in the room with her husband, her parents and her sister. "I only wish she had stayed around longer."

Their wake-like ceremony for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign involved all the usual stages of grief, from denial to depression and from anger to acceptance. Like thousands of other Clinton supporters across the country last week, they mourned the political passing of a woman who so inspired them that she felt less like a distant politician than a dear friend.

As always at wakes, the talk turned quickly to memories. Never before politically active, Gropelli and her sister, Kathy Bem, knocked on doors, made phone calls and sent donations during Clinton's campaign. They stayed up late to monitor primary results. They spent an afternoon mingling with supporters at a local campaign rally. Like many other women, they engaged in politics more than they ever imagined possible.

"I never could have done this for any other candidate," said Bem, 44. "Hillary was so prepared to be president. She knew everything, she had the experience, and she was just such a fighter. It became a personal attachment for me. For the first time, it was like we were rooting for one of us."

Whom voters such as Bem root for now will help determine the next president. By the end of the prolonged and sometimes divisive Democratic primaries, more than a quarter of Clinton voters said they would vote for Republican John McCain against Democrat Barack Obama, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center conducted just before the final votes were cast.

McCain's campaign said last week that it will target Clinton backers, thinking they have more in common with him than with Obama.

Gropelli and Bem won't be among them. They listened to Clinton's withdrawal speech Saturday, and her message confirmed the sisters' intuitions. They will vote for Obama, although they're not sure about campaigning for him. Their family members will vote for Obama, too.

"Hillary made it real clear what we have to do as Democrats," Bem said. "She came across really strong on that, and I trust her. We have to move from one candidate to the other."

On the day Clinton announced her candidacy in January 2007, Gropelli vowed to unite her family behind the senator from New York. A nursing professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Gropelli already had heard her students gossiping excitedly about Obama. "I knew there was no time to waste," she said. "So I started lobbying all of my relatives."

Her family consisted mainly of Democrats, but more so in theory than in practice. The Bems and Gropellis followed politics sometimes, and they usually voted. But three generations had settled, and stayed, in the hills of Pennsylvania for the peace and quiet, for the distance from the problems faced by Washington politicians.

Only, as Clinton launched her campaign early last year, the Gropelli family had more to complain about than ever before.

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