THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

The moment of truth for Clinton

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 29, 2007

CONCORD, N.H.
OPRAH for Obama. Susan for Hillary.

On Monday, Hillary Clinton countered news that Oprah Winfrey will be stumping for Barack Obama with endorsement news of her own. She has the backing of Susan Lynch, the wife of Governor John Lynch, who describes herself as the first lady of New Hampshire, a pediatrician, and "most importantly" a mother. Lynch's husband is officially neutral in the race to win the New Hampshire primary.

Clinton arrived an hour late for this announcement. The candidate offered no apology to the 50 or so supporters who waited it out in a small, overheated room, designed to make a small gathering look large. Lynch sounded sincere, but her comments lacked emotion or spark. And so did Clinton's follow-up remarks, which focused on healthcare, the one topic that should stir her passions.

Write it off as one flat, 10-minute interlude on a long, winding campaign trail packed with many emotional highs and lows. Even so, the event felt oddly disconnected from shifting political realities that stand to reshape the race for the Democratic nomination.

Recent polling shows a tightened contest in Iowa, with Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards bunched together, within the statistical margin of error. Clinton doesn't have to win Iowa, her supporters insist, but the possibility of a second- or even third-place finish makes New Hampshire even more of a necessary firewall. Now that inevitability is no longer succeeding as her main campaign theme, the Clinton strategy for victory seems harder to pinpoint.

Obama is working to undermine Clinton's claim as the most experienced candidate, diminishing her role as first lady during the Clinton White House years. At the same time, he is pumping himself up as the candidate of change and Oprah-enhanced excitement.

Clinton is sticking with women, as illustrated by the framing of the Lynch endorsement. Her political touchstone remains the Clinton era, as illustrated by the endorsement that followed from Barbra Streisand. Is any Hollywood entertainer more associated with Bill Clinton than Babs?

Up to this point, the Clinton campaign has been all about tactics. It has to get more visceral - less Streisand and more Springsteen.

In an interview in Concord with CBS News anchor Katie Couric, Clinton said she takes nothing for granted. But, she also declared that the nominee "will be me."

In the interview, Clinton sounded like she really doesn't believe a rival can steal victory from her. She should believe it; her supporters do.

At the Concord event, Kathleen Strand, Clinton's New Hampshire communications director, responded to a reporter working on a magazine article about Clinton with this question: "Is this contingent on anything?" In other words, if there's no Clinton victory, is there still a magazine story?

"The American people put you through your paces. They don't allow front-runners to coast to a coronation. I think she understands what she has to do . . . We have to see if she can do it," said a Clinton fund-raiser from Massachusetts.

The race is fluid. No one yet has closed the deal. There are more debates ahead, giving Clinton an opportunity to remind voters why she held onto front-runner status for so long. But now comes the moment of truth, when voters look to candidates to demonstrate more than facility with language and familiarity with policy. They are looking for substance, character, leadership, and humanity.

Polling shows Clinton is having trouble connecting with male voters and is vulnerable on the trust issue. Streisand's backing is no help with either.

Enough with obsessive targeting of the women's vote. She won't lose the female supporters already with her, and is unlikely to change the minds of those women who already dislike her.

Clinton wasted valuable time after the Oct. 30 forum in Philadelphia, playing the gender card far too long. Now, she's more aggressively challenging her opponents, and getting inevitable criticism for doing what must be done - drawing distinctions between them, as Obama would say.

Who knows? Maybe Susan Lynch, first lady, pediatrician, and mother, will help Hillary Clinton more than Oprah Winfrey, superstar and TV host, will help Obama in celebrity-averse New Hampshire.

Maybe at some level the Clinton campaign does understand what it takes to win hearts, minds, and votes in the Granite State. As Clinton left the Concord campaign event, the loudspeaker was playing "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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