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In New Hampshire, Clintons Struggle To Connect With State They Knew

Hillary Clinton, accompanied by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, during a campaign event this year.
Andrew Harnik
Hillary Clinton, accompanied by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, during a campaign event this year.

For more than two decades, New Hampshire has been a place of redemption for the Clintons. That could come to an end Tuesday night.

The Granite State revived Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign after a devastating Iowa loss to Barack Obama. That victory helped her become the new "Comeback Kid" — the same moniker her husband claimed after his strong finish in the state in 1992 jump-started his road to the Democratic nomination.

But now it's Clinton's rival Bernie Sanders who has the momentum going into Election Day. The senator for neighboring Vermont leads the former secretary of state by double digits in polls here — erasing her more than 50-point advantage since last summer and outspending her on the airwaves.

Clinton seemed to feel a renewed urgency and was certainly conceding nothing as she rallied volunteers and supporters Saturday afternoon at a middle school gym in Concord. There, she debuted a thoroughly revamped stump speech after her razor-thin Iowa win that strikes a more populist tone.

"I am committed to doing everything I can as your president to make sure our country rises but also to remove the barriers that stand in the way of any person rising," she thundered, promising to fight Wall Street.

The noticeable shift to one of Sanders' key messages — inequality and the lack of upward mobility in the country — isn't an accident. As her opponent's themes have gripped the liberal base in the state, many voters are wondering whether they should go with their heart in following Sanders' uplifting message or their head in prioritizing Clinton's experience.

Donna Manion of Bow came to Clinton's nearby Concord rally still trying to make up her mind. Even though she likes Clinton and voted for her in the 2008 primary, Manion said there's just something special about the 74-year-old Sanders that reminds her of a young John F. Kennedy.

"I can, in my mind, think I'm pro-Hillary all the way, and then Bernie Sanders' ideas that he exposes me to really cause me to think in ways I hadn't thought before," she admitted. "I think in terms of 'us' a lot when I listen to Bernie talk. Whereas, when I listen to Hillary, even though I respect so much of what she has done and the person that she is, I hear the word 'I,' 'I, 'I' a lot."

While Manion is still making up her mind, her husband is Sanders all the way.

"He has tapped into something that is fundamentally wrong and concerning about this country, and that is why so many people are feeling the fervor, are embracing the movement and understand that it's time to take the country back," Patrick Manion said.

Bill Clinton was also feeling the pressure in the final hours of the New Hampshire race to try to stop the narrative that Sanders represents change, throwing cold water Sunday on the idea that Sanders could actually enact some of his ambitious proposals.

Deriding Sanders' health care plan, which would raise taxes in order to scrap premiums, the former president said the state he once "campaigned in really cared that you knew what you were doing, and how it was paid for."

"The New Hampshire I knew would not have voted for me if I had done that," he declared at a get-out-the-vote rally in Milford.

Bill Clinton has made more subtle jabs at Sanders before, and the campaign has repeatedly noted that Sanders has a proximity advantage. No neighboring candidate has ever lost the primary here in an open seat race, and even Bill Clinton placed second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992.

But his remarks on Sunday indicate the Clintons aren't ready to cede the Granite State.

And Bill Clinton isn't the only surrogate who's stepped up rhetoric in the closing days. When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright introduced Hillary Clinton on Sunday, she repeated a line she's often used before, but this time it had a particular bite to it given the fight between Sanders and Clinton.

"There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," the first woman to be America's top diplomat proclaimed to applause.

For some of the many still undecided voters, particularly middle-aged and older women, that message could have sway.

Mary Fagan of Bow attended a Sanders rally in Portsmouth on Sunday afternoon after seeing Clinton in Concord on Saturday. And while Fagan said she likes Sanders' messages on climate change and taking on the banks, she is still undecided and feels a pull toward Clinton.

"I love Bernie and I also really like Hillary. I respect all the work she's done as well as the experience she has," Fagan said. "A lot of people say you shouldn't count it for or against her that she's a woman, but she's had it count against her her whole life."

Other female voters are unmoved by that argument. Sanders, Diane Meagher of Keene said, represents the type of change from politics as usual that she's looking for — something she just doesn't see in Clinton.

"If Hillary is the nominee, I won't vote for her," said Meagher, an independent. "It's a trust factor. I'm actually excited about the Bernie campaign. It's a grass-roots movement. It feels like this is who individuals want as a candidate, not just people who have money and corporations."

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.