Politics

On the road with Hillary Clinton as she surprisingly connects with voters

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton poses for a photo during a campaign stop at River Valley Community College on Tuesday in Claremont, New Hampshire.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton poses for a photo during a campaign stop at River Valley Community College on Tuesday in Claremont, New Hampshire. AP

You’ve heard that the FBI is investigating Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information on her personal email server as secretary of state. And you know that nobody considers Mrs. Clinton nearly as skilled a politician as her husband, Bill Clinton, or as magnetic as her old boss, Barack Obama.

What you may not realize, and what is consistently overlooked lately amid her email scandal, the attention on Donald Trump, and the buzz about gigantic crowds for Democratic primary rival Bernie Sanders, is that the cautious candidate so often depicted as cold and distant connects quite well with voters.

“She brought me to tears. I am a tough, cranky, hard-a-- New Englander, and she touched my heart today,” businesswoman Denise Andrews said after attending a town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire.

News coverage of Clinton’s Exeter appearance focused on her reaction to “offensive, outrageous” Trump, rather than her interaction with the mother of a 5-year-old girl battling cancer or the young man drowning in college loans and unable to find a job. (“You’re a good-looking young man. You ought to be out in the world making your way,” Clinton said, sounding like a grandma.)

“She has so much compassion, and it shows,” said Sarah Harris, a middle school teacher and the mother of that girl close to beating Stage 4 liver cancer. “She’s a person, she’s a grandmother, she’s somebody’s mother.”

After hearing her at a town hall meeting in Claremont, Matt Torney, a 27-year-old educator, wondered aloud where Clinton’s ice princess image came from.

“That reputation was started at some point, but it clearly does not come from people who have been in a room with her,” he said. “She is so knowledgeable in so many areas, and she connects really well with folks. The longer the campaign goes, the better for her, I think, because more people will see her and get past all that noise.”

That voters at a partisan presidential campaign event would say nice things about the headliner candidate is hardly surprising.

What is striking is that so many people who see Clinton in person say they had a generally negative impression of her beforehand. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67, has been on the national and international stage almost nonstop for more than two decades, and countless voters still don’t know her except as a calculating caricature.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon for the guarded and private former New York senator. In 2008, when she defied the polls and pundits by winning the New Hampshire primary against Obama, many observers chalked it up at least partly to her tearing up and giving voters a rare look at her human side.

After a Q&A session Clinton held at a ski resort in Manchester last week, an impressed Debbie Meinbresse confessed that she had even expected Clinton to look different in person.

“She’s so well-spoken, and looks so fresh,” said Meinbresse, who works at MIT. “A lot of times you see her portrayed very unattractive — they take the picture that makes her look fatter or cod-like.”

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As a political speaker, Clinton comes off more as a warm technocrat than a stirring orator. Much like Republican Jeb Bush, she is more at ease wading into an intricate policy discussion than delivering a stump speech.

In question and answer sessions, her vast resume is apparent as she knows intricate details of anything from how toddlers learn vocabulary to America’s efforts to press China on global warming. Some topics get her particularly animated.

“At some point we have to regain our senses,” she said in Exeter when asked about recent random shootings. “What about the young mom with her two kids in a supermarket and some guy gets to come in with, you know, an AK-47 over his back because he’s got a new permit that permits him to walk around and threaten, and intimidate, and scare the heck out of that young mother and her two kids?”

Asked about getting women more involved in science, Clinton recounted her experience offering promotions or big jobs to countless young men and women over the years: “Very often when I would (offer a job) to a young woman, the response would be something like, ‘You think I can do that?’ I never had a young man say that to me. It was more like, ‘What took you so long?’”

During two days of campaigning in New Hampshire last week, nowhere did she look more at ease than during a somber, and sometimes intense, hour-long discussion on how to deal with heroin and substance abuse.

“We know this is happening, but it’s not yet a big issue,” Clinton said as she began the forum at Keene Middle School, explaining that she has been surprised on the campaign trail about how often she hears from people affected by substance abuse. The son of one of her and Bill’s friends, she noted, recently died of a drug overdose. He was in law school.

“Some people question why, since I’m running for president, would I be talking in New Hampshire about substance abuse. Really, it’s simple for me: That’s what people talk to me about,” Clinton said. “At the very least, I hope I can raise this issue to the priority that I think it is.”

Among the several hundred people in the crowd was Brigitta Shouppe, a 31-year-old Republican from St. Petersburg who was vacationing in New Hampshire and went to see Clinton out of curiosity.

“I think she’s very formidable,” said Shouppe, a communications professional who has worked in politics.

Clinton spoke little about her agenda or specific plans as president, Shouppe said, “But she was very impressive in terms of connecting with people. You can spend an hour sitting in a room and kind of get carried away listening to her responses. … I walked out of there thinking, ‘Wow, I’m impressed.’”

• • •

While much of America knows the former secretary of state as an elite lawyer-turned-first lady-turned-politician who earns millions of dollars from speeches, Clinton is making a conscious effort to share personal stories.

“I am the granddaughter of a factory worker in Scranton,” says the candidate who often gushes about her own granddaughter, Charlotte.

“Most people look at her and think she was born into a wealthy family and was destined from birth to go to Wellesley and Yale Law School and so forth. Well, none of that’s true,” said Terry Shumaker, a Manchester lawyer who has known the Clintons for 24 years.

On the stump and in TV ads, Clinton talks about her mother’s traumatic childhood, rejected by her parents and sent at age 8 to live with grandparents who did not want her. Dorothy Rodham, who often accompanied Clinton on the campaign trail in 2008, died in 2011. Clinton said she was uncomfortable talking about her mother’s difficult childhood when she was still alive.

“I want every young person in America to know that if you work hard, you can get ahead, and I want America to have your back, just like it did in the past,” she said in Exeter, touting her proposal to make colleges and universities more affordable.

“I had a loan to go law school. It was a government loan. It was at a very low interest rate, and I paid it back as a percentage of my income over time. So did my husband. We both worked hard. We worked all the time — extra jobs, extra opportunities to pay our way.”

Between the email controversy and the summer surge of Sanders, many Democratic leaders are worrying about Clinton’s prospects. There is talk about Joe Biden jumping in. Or Al Gore.

Meanwhile, Clinton is introducing herself to voters for the umpteenth time and slowly, quietly, personally alleviating doubts.

“I’ve read that she’s aloof, but you meet her and she’s very direct, she looks you straight in the eye, she genuinely listens,” Jon Stearns, a human resources consultant in Lebanon, New Hampshire, said after seeing Clinton at a town hall meeting in Claremont.

“You know, my wife has some concerns about her and wanted me to get a sense of her,” Stearns said, “and I’m going to go back and tell her she’s a very direct and very, very intelligent woman. She’s terrific.”

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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