The question seemed innocuous enough. "How," a woman asked Hillary Clinton at an event in Portsmouth, N.H., designed to woo undecided voters, "did you get out the door every day? I mean, as a woman, I know how hard it is to get out of the house and get ready. Who does your hair?" Clinton chuckled, made a few jokes about how she "has help" on certain days (but those are never the pictures you see on Web sites, she joked). Then she paused. Her eyes grew red. The coffee shop, packed with about 100 members of the media and 16 outnumbered voters, grew silent. "I just don't want to see us fall backward as a nation," Clinton began, her voice strained, her eyes welling. "I mean, this is very personal for me. Not just political. I see what's happening. We have to reverse it." She was talking about the country under George W. Bush, but it may well have been a metaphor for her campaign. Then came what may well be the only moment in this campaign when Hillary Clinton publicly displayed the vulnerability and frustration those around her have talked about in recent weeks, as her once formidable campaign struggles to regain the momentum lost to Barack Obama. "Some people think elections are a game: who's up or who's down," Clinton said, her voice breaking and tears welling. "It's about our country. It's about our kids' future. It's about all of us together. Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some difficult odds."
As the 16 undecided voters—14 of them women—nodded sympathetically, some with their own eyes watering, Clinton went on. "We do it, each one of us, against difficult odds. We do it because we care about our country. Some of us are right, and some of us are not. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not." Although still emotional, Clinton was hitting the points in her post-Iowa stump speech. Obama's name was unspoken but obvious. "Some of us know what we will do on day one, and some of us haven't thought that through."
"This is one of the most important elections we'll ever face," Clinton continued after a long pause, her cracking voice barely audible at times over the clicking shutters. "So as tired as I am and as difficult as it is to keep up what I try to do on the road, like occasionally exercise, trying to eat right—it's tough when the easiest thing is pizza." There were a few sympathetic chuckles and nods from her female compatriots. At this point Clinton, struggling for composure, delivered what may become the sound bite of her campaign. "I just believe…" She had to pause again, then went on. "…so strongly in who we are as a nation. I'm going to do everything I can to make my case, and then the voters get to decide."
How will it play? No one will remember the hour of detailed policy talk that preceded Clinton's emotional moment. Even as she spoke, a local television reporter was broadcasting live that Clinton had started crying. Other reporters tried to correct him, even as he was still on the air. No, she didn't cry. But if the grim polls, which currently show Obama up by double digits heading into tomorrow's New Hampshire primary, are right, you know the pictures of a red-eyed Clinton will go up under the inevitable headline "Trail of Tears." There will no doubt be comparisons to the teary press conference former Colorado representative Pat Schroeder held to announce that she wouldn't run for president, thus confirming that anyone who needed to carry Kleenex in her purse was unfit for the highest office in the land.
It shouldn't be Clinton's Muskie moment. Photographers argue to this day whether the moisture on Ed Muskie's cheek during a passionate interview on the eve of the 1972 Democratic primary came from tears or snowflakes. But whichever it was, the moment sealed his fate as a man too emotional to be president. Hillary's teary moment may very well work in the opposite direction: helping a candidate who is seen as aloof and too tightly scripted appear more vulnerable, more human and more appealing. And those qualities could be big assets as the campaign careens out of New Hampshire, especially as a contrast to the angry scenes of Clinton rebutting Obama and John Edwards in Saturday night's debate.
Hours before New Hampshire voters go to the polls, Clinton has finally showed "the real Hillary," the one advisers always insisted was there, the one the campaign tried to sell in a clunky road show in Iowa, where longtime friends were rolled out to tell endearing stories, the one I witnessed on numerous trips abroad during Clinton's years as First Lady: an engaging, warm and witty woman, a first-class road-trip companion who seemed to spring to life as soon as her plane left U.S. airspace.
Since the rout in Iowa, Hillary has been waging an eat-your-peas campaign, warning that long after "beautiful words" have been spoken, the tough work of government remains—and that's best left in the hands of an old pro. Today's display of vulnerability hit the mark, at least among 16 voters crammed into a coffee shop in Portsmouth, N.H. "It got me," said Jane Harrington, a voter from Newington who came to the session trying to decide between Clinton and Obama, whom she had seen a day before—and really liked. "I wanted to see who the real Hillary was. That was real." The question now is how many others will feel the way Harrington did—and whether the emotional moment came too late.