Hillary Clinton Tosses the Script

| Sat Jan. 5, 2008 7:46 PM EST

hillary-nh-event.jpg As Hillary Clinton looks to become the second Comeback Kid in her immediate family, her campaign is trying a new approach. She kicked off her New Hampshire campaign by sticking to the stump speech that she relied on in Iowa, but that's changed. Perhaps sensing that her stump speech was, in effect, third-rate, Clinton delivered very brief remarks at the beginning of her campaign appearances today and spent most of the time taking questions from New Hampshire voters.

At Merrimack Valley High School in the town of Penacook this morning, Clinton spoke for roughly ten minutes before turning to the very substantial crowd for questions. Her remarks did have a point, however: three times in those ten minutes, she managed to say that she was the only candidate ready to lead "from day one" or "from the first day." The speakers that came before her also used the phrases three times, in equally brief comments. Perhaps the Clinton camp took a hard look at the strategy from Iowa—emphasize biography, emphasize the '90s, emphasize work ethic—and determined that only the "day one" sound bite was worth keeping.

And it's just as well. At both the Penacook appearance and a later one in Durham, Clinton was masterful in the question and answer sessions. The questions were easy; examples included "What are the top two reasons to vote for you?" and "I've been frustrated by the deceptively named No Child Left Behind. What will you do about it?" Clinton provided very long answers—an answer ostensibly on social security touched on middle class incomes, health care, energy, and the Republican war on science, and lasted over 10 minutes—that included smart tangents and acknowledgments of important sub-issues. For example, when asked a question about rising health care costs by a woman who claimed to be the caretaker of both her parents and her children, Clinton pointed out that "the most difficult time of day for families is often three to six" and that "you can get more help from the government putting parents in nursing homes than you can for keeping them in your own home." In another discussion, she pointed out dental hygiene's connections to heart health and infections all over the body. If other candidates have an appreciation of the issues that is this in-depth, they don't show it on the campaign trail.

And that may be the point of the new all-questions strategy. It allows Clinton to display the breadth and depth of her knowledge. Her ability to make reference to past battles and former achievements underscores her experience even if it isn't a central focus.

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And the crowds loved it. An elderly woman leaving the Penacook event at the high school said, "If the election were today, she'd have my vote." After the Durham event, a man named Sam Quinn said, "I thought she was pretty together and well-organized. She seemed to have an answer for every question." Quinn said he was likely to vote for Clinton. The Durham crowd applauded enthusiastically after each of Clinton's responses.

But there are two problems. It was never Hillary Clinton's campaign events that turned people off. At Obama and Edwards events in Iowa, voters explained their opposition to Clinton by pointing to her vote with the White House to classify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization; or the fact that her campaign had gone negative (the attack on Obama's kindergarten essay and the insinuations of drug-dealing were frequently cited); or the fact that she had embraced Rupert Murdoch after the media magnate spent years tearing into her family. Whatever the reason, it almost always had to do with her past actions or the behavior of her campaign. There's no performance Clinton can put on at these question and answer events that is going to counter that.

The other problem is that this new strategy includes no new message that will inspire people. It introduces no new ideas or principles that undecided voters can identify with from afar. They have to come to her events to see how impressive she is. And even if Hillary Clinton converts every single person at these question and answer sessions, the most people she can reach is 1,000 to 1,500 per day. With election day on Tuesday of next week, she's going to have to do better than that.

Photos: Top, Hillary Clinton supporters before her event this morning in Penacook; second, the Merrimack Valley High School gym at 9:00 am; third, the same gym roughly an hour later; bottom, Clinton speaking at the event.

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