The drive from Portland, Me., to Boston takes less than two hours, but when Hillary Clinton made the journey in October, she flew.
To do otherwise would have violated what has become the central taboo of her independent political career: It would have put her, for 14 miles, on the soil of the State of New Hampshire.
Mrs. Clinton’s New Hampshire taboo is the physical form of her refusal to discuss what has become, for supporters and critics alike, an assumption: her bid for the Presidency in 2008. But it isn’t just that she hasn’t, unlike every other Democrat seriously eyeing the nomination, visited New Hampshire this year. She didn’t visit it during the 2004 election, because the Kerry campaign—based on its own polling—didn’t want her there. She didn’t visit during her first four years as a Senator. And she didn’t even visit during her last four years as First Lady.
All told, Hillary Clinton hasn’t set foot in the capital of American primary politics for more than nine years.
Now, after a successful visit to the Granite State by outgoing Virginia Governor Mark Warner, after former Senator John Edwards has practically moved there—he’s been to New Hampshire four times this year—people are beginning to wonder when exactly Mrs. Clinton will have to cross the state line and start working the local moguls.
“People remember her well, but there does become an issue of familiarity and interest, and people do tend to begin to pick their favorites,” said Sylvia Larsen, a New Hampshire State Senator who supported Bill Clinton in 1992.
The paradox of Mrs. Clinton’s position is that, while she has obsessively avoided the big symbols of a Presidential campaign—visiting New Hampshire, speaking about the race—the local Republican challenge for her Senate seat is failing to get off the ground, and the Senator has stepped up her attempts to position herself on the national stage.
Playing to the right last week, she co-sponsored a law against burning flags in some circumstances. And, apparently with an eye to Democratic primary voters’ discomfort with the Iraq war, she e-mailed a careful 1,632-word apologia on the war to supporters. In it, she put new distance between herself and the Bush administration, writing that “I take responsibility for my vote” to authorize the invasion—a change from an earlier speech in which she said that she “stand[s] by” the vote.
None of those moves made for the kind of television that Mrs. Clinton would generate at the airport in Manchester. It’s interesting to note, however, that many in New Hampshire don’t take her absence personally.
“It would be not helpful if she came up here,” said Ray Buckley, a Democratic Party official. “No matter what she said, people would just assume she was running just by her coming here.”
Publicly, however, Mrs. Clinton has just been too busy.
“She’s the Senator from New York,” said Ann Lewis, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign communications director. “She’s working awfully hard to represent the state. She does some travel on behalf of other Democratic candidates and Senators, but she can’t go everywhere.”
That travel has recently included a swing that took her as far as Kentucky, and she even managed a trip to the other early political hub, Iowa, in 2003—to emcee a dinner featuring the Democratic primary candidates in the ’04 election cycle. This October, she found herself in Maine at a fund-raiser for that state’s governor when she flew to Boston for a fund-raiser for the Governor of New Hampshire, John Lynch.
At the event—and without actually crossing into the state—she did reassure New Hampshire Democrats that she was with them on a crucial issue: retaining their early primary.
“She has certainly told Governor Lynch that she supports the New Hampshire primary,” said a spokeswoman for the Governor, Pamela Walsh.
And many of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters say that the network Bill Clinton built in the state—along with the jobs and the White House visits he lavished on New Hampshire Democrats—all give his wife a huge head start on her potential Democratic rivals. And Mr. Clinton, not bound by his wife’s taboo, has visited the state, most recently for a book signing last month.
“With no disrespect to the candidates who have already visited the state, my guess is, if there was a contest of who could look at the most people and say hello to them by first name, Hillary would still win,” said Joe Grandmaison, a former state party chairman who had a federal appointment in the Clinton administration.
A Well-Known Name
“Hillary doesn’t have a name-recognition problem,” said William Shaheen, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat and the husband of the state’s former governor.
Indeed, Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, has conducted four small tracking polls since the beginning of this year. The polls’ size—only 200 likely Democratic primary voters in each—give them a high margin of error, but the results have been consistent: Mrs. Clinton leads the field of Democrats with the early support of between 27 and 33 percent, trailed by Senator John Kerry and then Mr. Edwards.
But Mrs. Clinton’s absence from New Hampshire has an obvious downside as well. Mr. Warner, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Kerry and others have been building the small-scale relationships from which primary victories are sometimes built. New Hampshire politicos say that the state’s activists will begin making up their minds after the 2006 elections.
“By the end of 2006, after the elections, people will seek their candidate,” said Lou D’Alessandro, a State Senator who was a leading supporter of John Edwards in 2004. “She’s got to call people within the next 12 months.”
And some of her New Hampshire friends are hoping that the state’s two Congressional races will give her an opportunity to visit before next year’s election.
“I could see her coming up here to help those two people win the Congressional seats,” said Mr. Shaheen, who said he discussed the races with Mrs. Clinton at the Boston fund-raiser.
The limits on Mrs. Clinton’s ability to take advantage of her national profile have another downside—an inability to spend time in swing states, including New Hampshire and Iowa, to persuade voters that she is a thoughtful moderate.
Mrs. Clinton was not sent to Iowa and New Hampshire to campaign on John Kerry’s behalf, for example, because polling data showed that she wouldn’t help him, according to two people familiar with the campaign’s decision. (Ms. Lewis said that Mrs. Clinton went everywhere she was asked to go, including the swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania.) While there is no question about her popularity among Democrats, Mrs. Clinton’s presumed target is the White House, not simply the nomination. And one of her stumbling blocks could be a perception that she can’t win over swing voters.
In any event, she’s come a long way since her final trips to New Hampshire in 1996, first to file Mr. Clinton’s formal re-election papers in January and then, on Oct. 18, for a fund-raiser for former Congressman Dick Swett, who was running for the Senate.
“Obviously, no one was thinking about Hillary Clinton at the time as a Presidential candidate,” said Mr. Swett, later the Clinton administration’s ambassador to Denmark, speaking to The Observer. But, he added, it was hardly unthinkable, even at the time.
“I know the Clintons very well, and they have never surprised me,” he said. “They are a very talented couple who have great ideas and ambitions, and this all fits within the realm of consideration.”