Display adds to a storied lore
CONCORD, N.H. - Hillary Clinton's emotional response Monday to the voter in Portsmouth who asked how she stayed upbeat amid the rigors of the campaign will go down as a "New Hampshire moment," preserved forever at the state's Political Library and in American political lore.
It will join a long string of famous New Hampshire moments, all with one thing in common: They stripped the candidates of their political gloss and revealed some inner truth about their makeup.
After Clinton's surprising comeback win Tuesday, many pundits yesterday said the choke in Clinton's voice - made all the more striking because she had never lost her composure in such a way in 16 years in the national spotlight - provided a crucial point of connection to female voters.
But it might have been beneficial to her in a simpler way. Such displays of humanity in sudden, spontaneous settings have won and lost numerous primaries in the past.
"That's what's important about the scale of campaigning that goes on here," Michael Chaney, president of the New Hampshire Political Library, said yesterday. "You can take the measure of the candidate in more ways than what you see on TV or in ads."
The obvious historical bookend to Clinton's moment was the snowy day in March 1972 when Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie appeared to cry over aspersions about his wife's character: He contended that what was reported as tears were snowflakes. Even though he narrowly won the primary, the show of emotion violated the behavioral norms of the era, and his campaign soon folded.
But candidates have just as often benefited from displays of emotion, most famously when Ronald Reagan, having lost the 1980 Iowa caucuses to George H. W. Bush, boldly took on a debate moderator from the Nashua Telegraph, thundering, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green."
Political junkies know that the man's name was Breen and that Reagan was violating the prearranged rules of the debate by trying to include candidates other than Bush; but Reagan's willingness to stick to his guns, compared with Bush's apparent timidity, showed the appeal of his character. Reagan won the primary by a wide margin.
Eight years later it was Bush's turn to lose the Iowa caucuses but win the New Hampshire primary, and emotional moments were largely responsible for his comeback and the defeat of Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.
Bush was the establishment candidate running on his experience; voters wondered if, after eight years as vice president, he remembered their concerns. Iowa thought not: Bush finished a dismal third, well behind Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson.
But in New Hampshire, Bush unleashed ads saying Dole had voted for numerous tax hikes. Asked on the campaign trail if he had any message for Bush, Dole turned around in a vaguely menacing tone and snapped, "Stop lying about my record." His angry tone repelled voters.
Bush, meanwhile, stopped wearing his Brooks Brothers suit and engaged in everyday jobs. He gave an emotional speech suggesting he could have retired after a fine career in Washington but he wanted to serve the country. When the votes were counted, Bush whipped Dole by nine points.
This year, Clinton was in the same position as Bush in '88. After decades in the spotlight, she seemed proud and imperious. And Iowa voters wanted a change. In the short five-day window between the caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Clinton strived to show she can connect with voters.
In Saturday's debate, a questioner asked about her likability problem. She said, in a light voice but with some emotion behind it, "That hurts my feelings." Barack Obama later quipped, "You're likable enough." Then, on Monday, came her choked-up response to the woman in Portsmouth.
New Hampshire voters may be concerned with more than a candidate's character. They don't want to rubber-stamp the results of the Iowa caucuses and they want to preserve their cherished tradition of retail campaigning. That means choosing a candidate who reveals himself or herself under questioning in small settings.
In 2008, that candidate was Clinton.