Hillary in New Hampshire

Hillary Clinton has just made her first real foray into NH, and that means the ’08 campaign is officially under way. If her experience there is any indication of what the future holds, she’s got a tough row to hoe.

The response to Clinton’s visit to New Hampshire, her first since 1996, was typified by Roger Tilton.

Tilton, a financial consultant from Nashua who had risen at 4 a.m. to make the drive north, asked Clinton to apologize for her vote [on the war]. She refused — reiterating her stance that “I have taken responsibility for my vote.”

Tilton was unmoved. “Until she says it was a mistake, she won’t get my vote,” he said.

Clinton was in Berlin, NH, way up in the nor’east corner of the state where the borders of NH, Maine and Canada meet. I grew up in southern NH. When I was a kid, northern NH was a bastion of support for the ultraright wingnut John Birch Society. Those were the guys who thought FDR was a Commie mole who was going to hand the US to the Soviets and fluoridation was a Commie plot to turn America’s children into Commie robots. Everybody who wasn’t a member – and almost everybody was – gave the JBS lots of vocal support if they knew what was good for them.

Northern NH has changed but not all that much. It’s still overwhelmingly wingnut Republican, though people are a lot less militant about it than they used to be (Democrats “up north there” used to half-expect to be shot “accidentally” during hunting season). Hundreds of people showed up at the Berlin town hall to see her but that isn’t because the hills are alive with liberals. Part of it is simple celebrity-worship. The other part, though, were the Democratic activists like Tilton who came north to see the party’s front-runner for themselves.

Nashua is way south on the Mass border, about a half-hour from Boston, and it’s a mostly Democratic enclave full of refugees from the crowds and the overpriced housing market of the Eastern Corridor. Which makes Tilton’s attitude not a surprise. More typical, perhaps, is this:

“I’d like to like her,” said Nathaniel Gurien of North Conway. “Now that she is running, she has to show us what she’s made of.”

North Conway is in the middle of the state and a reasonably healthy mix of Democrats and Republicans. Unlike Nashua, even the Democratic activists there tend to be centrist/pragmatic (they more or less have to be) and would, you’d think, make up Clinton’s natural constituency. Gurien’s skepticism could simply be the standard “wait and see” that NH primary voters pride themselves on – their power rests on their first-in-the-nation status and their refusal to commit to anybody too early – but it might betoken a real problem for Clinton.

As I’ve said before, there are a lot of Dem activists – Tilton is obviously one of them – who haven’t forgiven her for her cowardice in giving Bush what he needed to start a war they never supported. They consider the assenting votes by Clinton and Kerry and the other Dems who went along to be a betrayal of them and of the ancient Democratic tradition that says America never starts wars. That feeling runs deep in the base, and as the ringleader of the Dems who backed Bush’s war, Hillary’s going to take a lot of heat for it. That doesn’t mean her candidacy is over, of course, but it does mean it will be harder for her to whip the activists into shape during the primary season.

But if Gurien’s skepticism is genuine and indicative of the Democratic center in NH, Clinton may find herself up against a wall of reluctant Dems who have other candidates to look at and don’t need her. Depending on how he handles it, Bill Richardson could do very well there, and Obama could do very well in the south where most of the votes are (you could fit the entire population of northern NH inside a couple of Manchester’s voting districts). A win by either in NH could torpedo her campaign before it got started. Were they to finish one-two, Clinton might be finished as well.

Which may help explain why her DLC handlers had her start her campaign (the announcement in Iowa doesn’t count) not in the more unfriendly south but so far up north that southern party activists would have to drive 3 hours to see her, effectively keeping down the number of antagonists she would have to face in the audience. What was a lone voice or two in Berlin would have been a cacophony in Nashua or Portsmouth. In that sense, this was not a good sign:

[I]t was Iraq and Clinton’s position on the issue that served as the focal point of the day. Even those who were obvious supporters pressed for assurances that she believes the war was a mistake. One woman, who prefaced her remarks by telling Clinton, “You go, girl,” asked her to better explain her 2002 vote.

Uh-oh. And this – from another North Conwayite – is even worse.

“She’s very politically calculating and careful,” said Chuck Henderson of North Conway. “I want someone who has courage and is fearless.”

To say the least, courage and fearlessness aren’t Hillary’s forte. If even the centrists are looking for them, she’s already done.

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