On the trail: Hillary Clinton keeps the pace with sprawling events

Monitor staff
Last modified: Sunday, January 31, 2016
Hillary Clinton was looking out on a crowd of more than 1,000 people for the last question of the day, but on the risers behind her, a little girl in a hot pink shirt waved more frantically than anyone.

Brianna, age 4, strained her small torso and stretched her arm as high as her fingers would allow. When her father, Suraj Budathoki, put his hand in the air too, she tried to push it higher.

“I was looking for the president,” Brianna said later.

But Clinton didn’t see Brianna in the crowd. She got a question about college affordability instead, then waved to the cheering crowd and hit the ropeline. When the father and daughter were ushered backstage for a photo op, the exchange was quick – a flash from the camera, a smile, a handshake.

The pair was among the hundreds of people who flock to Clinton’s events in New Hampshire. They come to ask her about their paychecks, their tax bills, their student loans, their family members plagued by addiction, their medical costs, their fears, their dreams. Some get the chance; some, like Brianna, are lost in the large crowd.

This country has known Clinton for decades. But as she spends her days trying to make a personal appeal to New Hampshire voters, her stature, her Secret Service protection and her campaign schedule have made her as inaccessible as ever.

“When we started back in April, we deliberately did very small events,” Clinton said in an interview last Friday with the Monitor. “And a lot of them. Because first of all, I wanted to listen and learn from what was on people’s minds. That’s how I first heard about the terrible drug epidemic of opiates and heroin. It was not in a big session like this. It was with four people at a small table at a small cafe in Keene. And I’ve tried to keep a good mix of that until recently.”

Now, with the primary looming, Clinton’s trips to New Hampshire are focused on meeting as many people as possible. Last Friday, she flew in from Iowa in the morning, held two town halls in Rochester and Manchester, spoke at a dinner in Concord, took questions at a New Hampshire Public Radio forum, sat for a couple more interviews and flew back to Iowa that night.

Perhaps that’s why she likes those coffee shop conversations, even if they are now few and far between.

“That’s where you learn things,” Clinton said.

‘The best time’

A crowd of 500 people waited in Rochester, and Clinton was 40 minutes late for her first event of the day. Katy Perry’s “Roar” played in the interim.

But when Clinton strode onto the stage with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen at her side, the crowd whistled and cheered. Shaheen is one of the surrogates who has spoken in ads and canvassed for Clinton; celebrities, elected officials and other members of the Clinton family have also hit the trail for her.

“My husband’s having the best time being back in New Hampshire,” Clinton told the crowd.

For good reason. This state has special meaning to the Clintons, who have each won the first-in-the-nation primary. While Clinton has a significant national lead over her main rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, she trails him in the polls in the Granite State. She didn’t seem worried.

“I know what it is like to come from behind and win in New Hampshire,” Clinton said.

In her interview with the Monitor, Clinton was almost wistful as she ticked off a list of her favorite stops in the Granite State – the Puritan Backroom in Manchester, the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, former state senator Sylvia Larsen’s house in Concord.

“It’s always just a deep breath out when you get into her gracious home, and you can kind of just kick back,” Clinton said.

But these days, jetting between Iowa and New Hampshire doesn’t leave much time for kicking back. Clinton misses yoga and long walks near her home in New York, she said – but most of all, she misses her granddaughter, Charlotte.

“I saw her over the holidays, but I’ve been on the go ever since,” Clinton said. “So the little videos and pictures are trying to make up for it, but I really miss her.”

Clinton sat on the other side of the table in a tucked-away conference room. Staff hovered, with their own recorders rolling. For now, she’ll have to settle for smaller comforts – her favorite snack (raw jalapenos), a book about anything but policy before bed (the latest installment of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith.)

But Clinton is no stranger to the red-eye flights, the security, the press corps. A profile in BuzzFeed News dug up an old interview from Clinton’s second year as first lady.

“I feel cut off from people,” she said, nearly 20 years ago. “There is no substitution for that kind of personal contact.”

Today, Clinton and her staff said she often tries to reach beyond the ropeline.

“If somebody in the audience asks me a question either in the big event or when we’re shaking hands afterwards, I’ll call Mike (Vlacich, her New Hampshire state director) or somebody over, and I’ll say, is there anything we can do to get the information this person needs?” Clinton said. “Because I feel like being in politics truly is a service profession.”

A message of continuity

The day continued, 40 minutes to an hour behind for every stop, with no time for extra stops along the way.

At New Hampshire Public Radio, she continued to refine her line of attack on Sanders. She talked about her plan to build on the Affordable Care Act, juxtaposed with Sanders’s ideas for a single-payer health care system.

“It was called ‘Hillarycare’ before it was called Obamacare, back in ’93 and ’94,” she said, alluding to the failed attempts during her husband’s administration to establish a universal health care system.

“It would be a mistake to start all over again with a whole new system. . . . I know a little bit about how hard this is,” Clinton said. “And I think my approach is more likely to get the results that we both want.”

Clinton’s pitch, in fact, centers on that continuity. Over and over that day, she pledged to build on the work of her party’s predecessors.

“Think about the two Democratic presidents we’ve had in the last 35 years,” Clinton said in Manchester. “I’m fortunate to know them both.”

The crowd laughed. Only the ballots, however, will tell whether that message resonates with an electorate angry with the status quo and hungry for change. Clinton is counting in part on the historic nature of her presidential bid to set her apart.

“I’m running to be the first woman president,” she said at the NHPR forum. “What could be less establishment than that?”

She mingled for about 10 minutes at the public radio station after the questions ended, posing for selfies with the audience from the Concord Young Professionals Network. In the middle of the crowd, jostling for position, she lingered for an embrace with former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice John Broderick and his wife, Patricia. Before letting go, Patricia Broderick kissed Clinton on the cheek. The audience was only allowed to leave the room once the Secret Service had hustled Clinton out of the building.

Within a half hour, Clinton was onstage at the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws-Pro Choice New Hampshire dinner in Concord to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Like Planned Parenthood, the group has endorsed Clinton and campaigned on her behalf. (The Planned Parenthood Action Fund hasn’t backed a primary candidate in 100 years; in 2008, NARAL Pro-Choice threw its weight behind Barack Obama a month before Clinton dropped out.)

“The Republicans always seem to find a way to say that I’m playing the gender card,” Clinton said to the crowd, repeating one of her favorite lines. “Look, if fighting for equal pay and paid family leave and women’s reproductive healthcare is playing the gender card, just deal me in.”

But this campaign has also resurrected the Clintons’ critics of the 1990s; at a town hall at New Hampshire last fall, one woman stood up and asked about the women who accused her husband of sexually assaulting them years ago. Clinton didn’t flinch then, or when she was questioned about it during her interview with the Monitor.

“I have been a champion for women my entire life. . . . I have a record, and I have a long history of producing results as an advocate and as a legislator and as a diplomat,” Clinton said. “So I think people can draw their own conclusions.”

Listening to them

The town hall in Manchester was the last and largest event of the day.

Fortunately, Cheryle Pacapelli and Amy Gagnon planned ahead. When they were invited to the backstage photo op, they strategically positioned themselves at the end of the line to talk to her about an issue that has come up frequently on the trail in New Hampshire. The two women told her they are both in recovery from addiction – Pacapelli for nearly 27 years and Gagnon for 7 months.

The candidate ignored a staffer who tried to gently move them along. Instead, Clinton rested her hand on Gagnon’s shoulder, looking directly in her eyes.

“We have to get more people to get help, and then listen to them and guide them,” Clinton told the women, who nodded vigorously in agreement.

Pacapelli works at New Futures, a nonprofit that advocates to reduce drug and alcohol problems in New Hampshire. They came to the event by invitation of the campaign.

“Somebody called us to talk to her,” Gagnon said. “Because she wanted to talk to someone in recovery.”

Nearby, Budathoki helped his little daughter Brianna put on a sparkly winter vest to leave. Budathoki is Bhutanese, and he spent much of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal. He moved to the United States in 2009 and became a naturalized citizen in 2014. In less than two weeks, he will cast his first ballot in a presidential primary.

He wouldn’t say who he plans to support, but as the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan, he wanted to ask about Clinton’s agenda for his first home. Would the United States finally open an embassy there? What can this nation do to reunite refugees with their widespread families?

“How can we further United States foreign policy in Bhutan?” he said.

But he didn’t get the chance to pose that question to Clinton or tell his story. The candidate smiled for her last photo of the day, patted a campaign staffer on the shoulder and left through a back door with her tight-knit entourage – personal aide Huma Abedin, a pack of Secret Service agents.

She went to Iowa, and Budathoki went home.

“Maybe next time,” he said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321, mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)