CONCORD, N.H.—As she prepared to formally file as a candidate in the New Hampshire primary on Friday afternoon, Hillary Clinton was unexpectedly confronted by one of her White House rivals.
Vermin Supreme—he says he had his name legally changed a few years back—wears a beat-up work-boot on his head and is among the dozens of fringe publicity-seekers who routinely take advantage of the lead-off primary state’s minimal ballot-access rules. He had just filed his own paperwork—basically consisting of a thousand bucks and a signature—when he crossed paths with Mrs. Clinton and sought to gauge her feelings on his tongue-in-cheek platform.
“I asked her if she supports mandatory waterboarding in the public schools, but she pretended not to hear me,” said Mr. Supreme, who also pledges to “fully fund time-travel research so we can go back and kill Hitler” and has run in every New Hampshire primary since 1988. “The standard Reagan/Sam Donaldson treatment.”
Oddly enough, his non-serious attempt to engage Mrs. Clinton in a colloquy underscored a potentially serious problem for the putative front-runner in New Hampshire: a growing sense that she’s never met a question she didn’t try to wiggle out of answering.
“I’ve always heard people say that she doesn’t answer questions,” a member of the New Hampshire State Democratic Committee who is still deciding between Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama—and who has been courted fervently by Mrs. Clinton’s endorsement-centric state political operation—said. “And then I listened to the debate—and she doesn’t answer the questions.”
The committee member was referring to Mrs. Clinton’s tortured answers in the last nationally-televised debate to a question about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s effort to make undocumented workers eligible for driver’s licenses.
“And all of a sudden, it was like the Rosetta Stone: She never answers the questions, and she never takes a position. All of a sudden, that just hit me.”
For now, all the quantifiable evidence is that such notions have yet to hurt Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire, where the former First Lady sports some of her most robust poll numbers in the country. (She had leads in excess of 20 points over Barack Obama in two of the most recent polls.)
Mrs. Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign has been a remarkably sleek and successful enterprise, a top-down operation premised on the belief that a powerful sense of inevitability can be self-fulfilling.
She has piled on endorsement after endorsement and signed on virtually everyone who was on the New Hampshire Democratic Party payroll a year ago. Prominent Democrats who are on the fence are accorded the red-carpet treatment: comped tickets to glitzy top-dollar fund-raising galas, photos with Bill, V.I.P. seating at Hillary events, and personal phone calls from the stable of national political leaders who have signed on with Team Hillary.
To uncommitted party activists and leaders, the message is obvious: the train is getting ready to leave the station. And as more and more of them hop on board, the campaign is calculating that rank-and-file voters will give in too, convinced the Clinton campaign is the only show in town.
“You need to understand,” said a prominent neutral Democrat who has so far resisted Hillary’s temptations, “just how head-and-shoulders above every other campaign they are when it comes to their level of organization, all the way down to the way they have their youngest staff members dress.”
One risk of this strategy is that the sanitized professionalism of Clinton 2008, Inc. will feel too corporate for New Hampshire’s finicky electorate. After all, the game she’s playing here is eerily evocative of the one played by George W. Bush and Walter Mondale, front-runners who were embarrassed in the Granite State before recovering to win their party’s nominations.
Mrs. Clinton’s stop at the State House last Friday came toward the end of a two-day campaign blitz in the state. Along the way were hints of a potential culture clash between her campaign and the grass-roots voters who rule the state.
As Mrs. Clinton filed her paperwork inside, Cynthia Capodestria, a career employee with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services who was on her lunch break, stood in front of State House in Concord, where several hundred Clinton supporters were waiting for Mrs. Clinton to step out and address them. Armed with clipboards and pens, impeccably attired campaign field workers gathered names and numbers from the crowd, before massing on the State House steps, where they became Mrs. Clinton’s loudest cheering section when she finally appeared.
Ms. Capodestria wasn’t interested in signing up. She said she’s made a point of seeking out all of the Democratic candidates this year, but has had no luck penetrating the wall erected around Mrs. Clinton. She’d come to the Clinton rally to make one more effort to ask Mrs. Clinton the question most on her mind: “Will you give me your promise that you will never draft my children into fighting a war against their will?”
But Mrs. Clinton was already 45 minutes late and Ms. Capodestria’s lunch hour was almost over. With evident reluctance, she declared herself likely to back John Edwards.
“[Hillary’s] not giving me peace talk,” she said. “I think she’s extremely bright and has great experience. And I’m from the same generation as her—the women’s lib generation. I started out wanting to be with her. But she’s just too establishment for me.”
Across the way stood Beverly Sweet of Concord, an independent who typically votes Democratic and who plans to take a Democratic ballot in the primary. Mrs. Sweet, like so many other New Hampshire voters, spoke of the sense of civic obligation that led her to attend the rally and to hear from Mrs. Clinton in person. But she said she’s leaning toward Barack Obama, and expressed the increasingly familiar concern that Mrs. Clinton is a master of talking without actually saying anything.
“If you have it in your mind and then you start watching her, she doesn’t answer any questions,” Mrs. Sweet said. “And I’d like to support a woman for President, but I just don’t think she does it for me. She just comes across like such an insider.”
But Mrs. Clinton has one other not-so-secret weapon: Her husband, who artfully took an eight-point loss to Paul Tsongas in the 1992 primary and turned it into Chapter One of the story of “The Comeback Kid.” Mr. Clinton carried the once-Republican state in the ‘92 and 1996 general elections, and returned several times during his presidency, always gushing with thanks to the locals for bailing him out when Gennifer Flowers and his Vietnam avoidance had him on the ropes.
“There is a tremendous loyalty to Bill in the New Hampshire Democratic Party,” another state committee member said. “If his cat was running, there would be people who would support the cat, because they love him – they absolutely love him.”
That affection was on full display in Claremont, a small city of 13,000 on the Connecticut River midway between Keene and Dartmouth, where Mrs. Clinton paid a visit after her State House rally.
Once a vibrant mill town, Claremont fell on tough times decades ago and never really recovered. Far from any major cities—the most notable nearby locale is Cavendish, Vermont, where Alexandr Solzhenitsyn spent his exile years—it’s the kind of hard-luck, blue-collar town that Mike Barnicle, the fallen former Boston Globe columnist, had in mind when he wrote that New Hampshire is “Arkansas with snow.” In the darkest days of his ’92 campaign, Bill Clinton forged a bond with Claremont, with the Governor from the poor southern state asking the down-on-its-luck New Hampshire town for a second chance. Mr. Clinton lost the primary that year, but he carried Claremont—and made sure to come back when he was President.
On Friday, Mrs. Clinton stopped by Sophie and Zeke’s, a restaurant just off the town square that was packed beyond capacity for her visit. Ricia McMahon, a state representative from the area, was with Bill in 1992 and signed with Hillary as soon as she entered the race.
“He said, ‘Give me a second chance’ in ’92, and we did,” she said. “And now Hillary is running, and we’re saying, ‘We want to give you another chance [in the White House].”
That’s not an uncommon sentiment, and a huge part of the reason Mrs. Clinton will be tough to beat no matter how much her opponents or the press gripe about her calculated non-answers to legitimate questions.
All this, of course, assumes there’s not a massive, hidden vote for Vermin Supreme. Outside the State House on Friday, he predicted that this, his sixth presidential campaign, will mark “the year I finally beat Lyndon LaRouche.”