Hey Hillary, Forget Iowa and New Hampshire. Welcome to New Jersey.

 

HACKENSACK, NJ--The good people of the Garden State are, to borrow a phrase, "fired up." And I suppose you could say they're "ready to go" as well.

Last night, Hillary Clinton came to Hackensack for her first major New Jersey rally of the cycle--and the fervor reached levels typically reserved for candidates named "Barack Obama." The queue snaked hundreds of yards from the front door of the Bergen Academies high school to the far reaches of the parking lot; dozens gave up on getting a seat and could be seen retreating to their cars even before the event began. Amped as the atmosphere was, though, I suspect that the hubbub arose less from her fame and senator-next-door status than something more fundamental: the novel allure of seeing a real, live presidential candidate--any presidential candidate--in a state that hasn't had a say in the nominating contest since... well, ever. (Or at least in my lifetime.) Losing to Obama by 12 in the Palmetto State, Clinton has essentially ceded the primary and instead spent yesterday hopscotching from Washington to Arizona to California to Jersey--a preview of what all the candidates will start to do once South Carolina votes on Saturday. Not to take anything away from Hillary, who leads in the Garden State by 18 points; she was the rock star last night. It's just that Obama will probably assume the role, too, in the twelve days between now and Super Tuesday.

This is as it should be--and will soon be, I think, in many of the 22 once-ignored, suddenly-important states set to vote on Feb. 5.  A funny thing happens each cycle in Iowa and New Hampshire: after 12 months of constant campaigning--Clinton first stopped in the Hawkeye State on Jan. 27, 2007--the candidates cease to be stars and start to seem like neighbors. It's like Manhattanites and celebrities; Iowans are so used to encountering possible presidents at the local greasy spoon that, when they do, they pause, listen and quickly return to fondling corn (or whatever it that Iowans do when they aren't readying themselves to caucus). Missed McCain today? No worries; he's stumping next Tuesday at the Rendezvous Banquet Hall. But with candidate appearances both unprecedented and, now, in the sprint to Super Tuesday, infrequent, the Big 22 won't be nearly as blase. In fact, many in attendance last night treated Clinton's arrival--and the chance to meet her in the flesh--as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Take Barbara S. of Upper Saddle River, N.J. (She requested I match her name with a mere initial, saying she'd like to "keep [her] politics private." If only more people agreed.) A slim, nervy brunette in a cropped tan blazer, Barbara, who's deciding between Clinton and Obama, waited two-and-a-half hours in the sub-30-degree air to get in; when she finally reached the front of the sluggish Secret Service screening line around 6:25 p.m.--the senator, scheduled for 5:30, still hadn't arrived--an usher informed her that the gym was full and that she'd have to watch a live feed in the adjacent auditorium. Barbara made a bee-line for the nearest volunteer, an elderly lady hawking "Hillary" buttons. "Is she coming in this room, too?" she demanded, pointing to the auditorium. "I'm sure she'll try," said the button lady. "That's not good enough," Barbara snapped. "They put kids in the gym and kids can't even vote."

"Well, I thi--"

"I came at 4:00 and I now I won't get to see her in person!"

"Hold on, hold on. I do I think that she'll come over. I do."

Pause. "Well, as long you tell me she will, I'll stay."

"She will."

Just to be safe, Barbara reprised her interrogation with an advance man in the lobby and a staffer in the auditorium; the latter skittered off to find his superior, so I imagine he got the message. "There's a connection in person," Barbara told me. "I don't need to stand outside for two-and-a-half hours to see Hillary on a television screen. I can do that at home."

The event itself was notable mostly for what proceeded Clinton's delayed arrival--an absurd avalanche of unpolished local mayors, freeholders, chairmen, county commissioners, assemblymen and state senators standing up, clutching the mic and delivering, like alcoholics at an AA meeting, their earnest endorsements of the former First Lady. Evidently, voters weren't the only ones excited about Clinton's appearance. "The whole Bergen County Democratic Party is here," said one official (I would've guessed they'd tossed in Mercer and Essex for good measure). When the senator finally materialized--90 minutes late, like a true diva--her address was greeted with rapture. One gentlemen echoed each phrase with an "I believe" or a "that's right"; a row of young women sprung to their feet after every applause line. Clinton, for her part, offered a little local flavor, linking herself to her audience in the shared sorrow of Sept. 11. "After 9/11 we worked so closely together, to make sure we took care of those who had lost their loved ones to help rebuild, not just in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense as well," she said (top that, Obama). "I'm so proud that our two states showed such courage and resilience in the face of such horror." But most of her speech--at least for a reporter--was rote.

Not that it mattered. When Clinton finally shook her way through the throng of hands and swept into the auditorium, hunching to press more outstretched palms as she scuttled across the high stage, I have to admit: I felt a little New Jersey pride. (I'm a native.) Eager to finally experience a candidate in the flesh--and not just onscreen--the crowd erupted at the sight of her. Teenage girls giggled as she passed; "I'll never wash that hand again," said one. "She's such a petite little lady," a retiree told her friend. "Up close, she's adorable." And a college student bragged that, upon giving Clinton a gift, the senator only needed to hear the first words of the aphorism inscribed on its side--"Well-Behaved Women"--before eagerly reciting the rest: "...Never Make History." After years of watching Iowa and New Hampshire make history of their own, an admittedly ridiculous primary calendar has finally given some of the rest of us the chance to play a part. Excitement, I think, is in order.

As for Barbara S., she was "very glad [she] attended," but still undecided. Her next priority? To see Obama in person, "when he comes to town."   

And he will--if he knows what's good for him. 

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