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Many warming unexpectedly to Clinton

Senator Hillary Clinton visited a hospital in New Hampshire. She's now focusing on connecting with individual voters. Senator Hillary Clinton visited a hospital in New Hampshire. She's now focusing on connecting with individual voters. (Eliese Amendola/associated press/file)

CONCORD, N.H. - Don Schwartz, who describes himself as "a super-Deaniac progressive type," decided to back Hillary Clinton - whose centrist views, he concedes, do not necessarily match his own - for a simple reason. He wanted, finally, to be with a winner.

When Schwartz, the vice chairman of the Londonderry Democratic committee, started to contact his neighbors, with a goal of reaching 100 people per week, he thought he would have to appeal to their respect for her rather than their affection.

"I was actually surprised how many people said they were for Hillary," Schwartz said. "Now, they're getting to know her, and they're starting to like her. She is a nice person!"

That reaction to the kind feelings the New York senator is able to generate has been a common one in New Hampshire, where a range of Democrats said last week that they are amazed to find themselves falling for the presidential hopeful.

"I actually like her more than I thought I would," Martha LaFlanne, 49, the vice president of student affairs at New Hampshire Community Technical College in Berlin. "I think she's proven to be her own woman."

For at least a decade, the inflexibility of voter attitudes toward Clinton had come to be treated as an immutable law of American politics. On the question of Hillary, strategists of both parties concluded, voters had become split into two camps, pro and con, with firmly defined opinions, leaving few undecided and those on all sides generally unsusceptible to persuasion.

Yet over the summer, some voters appear to have changed their minds about the senator. On the key question asked by pollsters - do you view her favorably or unfavorably? - the numbers ticked in small but significant ways in Clinton's direction: a four percentage-point increase among those who like her and a three-point decrease among those who dislike her, according to an analysis of 77 surveys since early 2006 performed by Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Now her favorability rating nationwide stands at 49.8 percent - on the cusp of the 50 percent threshold widely viewed as a prerequisite for a successful candidacy, according to the analysis.

The change has surprised many polling specialists who believe that it's difficult - if not impossible - to change the public perception of a very well known figure, especially reducing the numbers who view that person negatively.

Nonetheless, Franklin found that the divide in voters' views of Clinton is "hardened, but not absolutely ossified. . . . We're not even into the heart of the campaign, and there's been a good bit of movement."

That movement validates a summertime charm offensive that reintroduced Clinton to voters.

"Because Hillary Clinton is so well known as a political figure, the expectations for average voters are hard to break," said Adam Berinsky, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But in New Hampshire, voters are getting to know her better and separating their own impressions."

In many cases, Clinton's campaign has chosen - at what staff insist is the candidate's own direction - to do fewer events a day and before smaller crowds, to make a more personal appeal.

"She's taken advantage of the intimacy of the New Hampshire primaries," said state Senator Lou D'Allesandro, who has not yet endorsed a candidate.

At the beginning of the year, Clinton and Senator Barack Obama both concentrated their New Hampshire politicking on large rallies. But in late spring, partly in response to criticism that they were not connecting with individual voters, the campaigns began focusing on visits to diners and house parties, a shift observers say has particularly benefited Clinton.

"Barack is a remarkable speaker, Hillary is a good speaker," said Paul Begala, a former advisor to Bill Clinton who has contributed to Hillary Clinton's campaign fund. "But Hillary is really good in a living room."

When planning larger events, Clinton has been particularly vigilant, aides say, at making sure the schedule maintains enough time for her to linger on the rope line.

"She's made it clear to us that the minimum amount of time she'll do an event will be 90 minutes, but I'm realizing the average has really been about two hours," said Nick Clemons, Clinton's New Hampshire state director. "We are trying to find the crowd size that can enable her to meet all the people there."

In August, D'Allesandro invited 200 neighbors to his Manchester yard, where Clinton addressed them from the porch and lingered long afterward in the driveway. "They were amazed that she would take her time to talk to them and have their picture taken," he said.

Working the rope line at a "fall kickoff rally" in Concord in early September, Clinton moved more slowly and deliberately than her husband, stopping in front of each person to talk while he seemed to glide from hand to hand.

"She seems more human," Anna Chen, a 20-year-old Harvard junior from San Diego, said after a debate last week in Hanover. "Her laugh has gotten a lot better. Did you notice that tonight?"

To D'Allesandro, who first met Clinton in the 1980s and witnessed her during the 1992 campaign, such bonhomie is a new trait. "This is a different Hillary Clinton, let me tell you," D'Allesandro said. "I think she was shy then. Boy, has she grown on the job."

During her husband's presidency, Hillary Clinton's favorable ratings swung frequently - reaching a low in 1995 after the Republicans took over Congress and a high three years later during the Monica Lewinsky scandal - but have remained relatively steady since she entered the Senate in 2001.

According to Gallup polls conducted this year, Obama, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Pope Benedict XVI, and pop singer Christina Aguilera also have favorable ratings that hover around 50 percent. For each, however, around 20 percent of respondents said they do not know the person or were undecided. For Clinton, that figure has remained exceptionally low, around 6 percent.

"I don't think people will say they don't have mixed feelings," said Billy Shaheen, cochairman of Clinton's campaign in New Hampshire.

In trying to decide what they think of Clinton today, voters find themselves wrestling with what they thought of her yesterday, and whether it was they or she who changed in the interim, specialists said.

"People are responding to the fact that they've heard one set of images repeated over and over," said Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University and the author of "The Political Brain."

As a result, the new impressions voters receive of Clinton are more likely to fit into the old frameworks they have for considering her, according to Westen, including the idea that even her charm may be calculated.

"I think Hillary has succeeded in helping to show her soft side," said Lee Stebbins, 61, a retired educator in Bethlehem. "I think they've softened her. I think her image is softened."

Above all, conversations about Clinton tend to engage a far deeper sense of self-awareness than those about other candidates.

Voters are often left assessing less what they think of Clinton than judging the gap between those feelings and what they believe is expected of them.

"I don't think I feel I have to like her personally, said Diane McGonagle, 56, who walked from her home in Concord last week to see Obama address a rally in a public park. "I don't see why warmth is an issue."

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