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Clinton makes effort to get closer to voters

Uses canvassing to try to add warm touch to campaign

Hillary Clinton campaigned at Thomas Jefferson High School yesterday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Her latest campaign strategy is to try to connect personally with voters. Hillary Clinton campaigned at Thomas Jefferson High School yesterday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Her latest campaign strategy is to try to connect personally with voters. (Getty Images)
Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / December 17, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Hillary Clinton inched down an icy sidewalk, trying to bond with the neighbors of Montgomery Street.

She greeted a little girl walking a cocker spaniel. "I will be a good president for dogs, I promise!" she said, as the puppy jumped all over her slacks. "I love gingerbread houses!" she told a teacher who said she had been making them with her students that day.

The Pare family invited her into their living room, where an unfinished jigsaw puzzle lay scattered across a card table. "I told them it's the last one before Christmas, because then the tree goes up, and the room gets smaller," said Verna Pare, the grandmother.

"That's exactly right," said Clinton with a nod, smiling at the children. "Who's a good puzzle solver?"

Canvassing is the oldest method of campaigning in the book, but it's a rarity for Clinton, whose one-on-one encounters with regular voters often occur at large town hall meetings and crowded rope lines.

In recent days, though, having lost ground among women in Iowa, and as her campaign has withstood criticism for attacking her Democratic rival, Barack Obama, Clinton's campaign appears to be making a special effort to show a human touch.

Clinton is known for her emotional reticence in public, long seen as a potential political liability, particularly now that she is fighting off a fierce challenge from Obama, who has closed the gap with Clinton in both New Hampshire and Iowa polls.

Now, the New York senator is getting help in showing her softer side - from her mother and daughter, from her childhood friends and from "real" people like Barbara Marzelli, who introduced Clinton at an event in Plaistow yesterday.

Marzelli, of Newbury, gave a poignant, sometimes tearful testimonial about how Clinton's work on the children's health insurance program had helped her 10-year-old son, who has a serious heart condition. The emotion and sincerity in her voice made her speech a stark departure from the usual introduction from a local politician.

"Without this in place, our lives would be quite different from today, and we would have lost everything, including our child," Marzelli said, her voice quavering.

Aides said there was no special effort to highlight Clinton's emotional side, insisting that the campaign is merely doing what it has all along - "letting people know who she is, what she believes in, and how she's going to lead the country."

A different kind of personal endorsement came from two dozen of Clinton's childhood friends from her hometown of Park Ridge, Ill., who piled into a bus Saturday morning and drove from Chicago to Des Moines, where they spent the weekend knocking on doors and making phone calls.

"I will defy you to find another candidate from either party with a bus full of elementary school friends traveling Interstate 80 in Iowa," Ernest Ricketts, a retired restaurant owner who has known Clinton since kindergarten, said by phone, from the bus.

Betsy Ebeling, Clinton's closest friend from childhood, is due to appear on stage with Clinton at a rally today.

In an even more intimate plug, new television ads featuring Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, and her daughter, Chelsea, focus on Clinton's family life. In both ads, a single phrase appears briefly on the screen: "Hillary's mom lives with her." Clinton has begun tucking that bit of information into her stump speech, too.

More extensive footage of the three generations appears on the campaign's website. One clip, from a campaign stop at a Des Moines deli last weekend, showed Rodham pouring maple syrup on her pancakes, Chelsea widening her eyes at a cute little girl, Hillary Clinton leaning in lovingly toward her daughter.

Effusive onlookers talk on camera about the "lovely young lady," and about how Clinton is "a compassionate person, a loving mother and daughter."

The family reunion was less endearing seen live at a campaign event in Winterset, Iowa, last Saturday, because neither Rodham nor Chelsea Clinton looked as though they were enjoying themselves much. The grandmother hunched her shoulders; the granddaughter wore a frozen smile. Neither addressed the crowd.

But the Iowans in the audience seemed delighted by the tableau. Sharmin Lathrop, a 57-year-old nurse, found it "wonderful" to see the three women together.

The canvassing trip in Manchester, however, illustrated how hard it can be for Clinton to seem like the voters she hopes to connect with before the state's crucial Jan. 8 primary. She wore an expensive-looking gold parka, and her hairdo barely moved as she inched down the icy sidewalk.

Following her were a creeping motorcade of sport utility vehicles, several Secret Service agents, six aides, and about three dozen reporters and photographers. Clinton mostly ignored the press - she generally does not answer questions in an informal setting - which made the scene seem all the more unreal.

But she managed to charm the Pare family, talking about schools and renewable energy, and she seemed to take a shine to 10-year-old Hannah, who told Clinton about her science project on hydropower. After she left, Hannah's mother, Kimberly Pare, pronounced Clinton "down to earth."

Outside, a reporter shouted, "What do you hope to accomplish today, senator."

"We're having a good time," she replied. She climbed into a waiting SUV and sped off to her next event.

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