Tears Have Turned Campaigns

By: Wall Street Journal

Emotional Clinton Moment Could Change Perceptions, But in Which Direction?

(See Corrections and Amplifications item below.)

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — After weeks of trying to soften her image, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s teary response yesterday to a voter’s question could do more than any ad campaign or posed photo op. The question now: Did it help her cause? Or did she project the weakness that could be fatal for a presidential candidate?

“My question is very personal: How do you do it?” Marianne Pernold Young, a 64-year-old free-lance photographer, asked Mrs. Clinton during a breakfast with undecided voters at the Cafe Espresso here. “Who does your hair?”

Mrs. Clinton said she has helpers. And then she got emotional. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy,” an exhausted-looking Sen. Clinton said, shaking her head. Her eyes began to get watery as she finished answering the question: “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t just passionately believe it was the right thing to do,” she said, her voice cracking. “I have so many opportunities from this country, and I just don’t want to see us fall backwards as a nation. This is very personal for me.”

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Mrs. Clinton is known for sticking to her stump speech and rarely showing her emotions. The 11 a.m. event, broadcast on national networks all day, was the defining moment on the campaign trail yesterday.

Mrs. Clinton wasn’t the first to tear up on the campaign trail.

For a time, even the most mild of breakdowns had been considered political suicide. In 1972, Edmund Muskie appeared to cry as he fumed against the New Hampshire Union Leader, a conservative paper in Manchester that had attacked his wife. He later said reporters had mistaken melted snowflakes on his face for tears. For the Maine senator, who had been considered a front-runner, that moment punctured the campaign and eventually led to its collapse.

Media scrutiny was considered damaging to the career of Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder after she cried in 1987 when she announced that she wasn’t going to run for president.

Tearing up on the trail has been “especially problematic for women,” says Paul Abramson, co-author of a series of books documenting presidential and congressional elections. Noting the Schroeder incident, he said, “It makes people doubt their ability to lead.”

More recently, as public attitudes have changed, politicians’ shows of emotion may even have helped them. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry burst into tears while campaigning in New Hampshire in 2004 when an unemployed mother spoke about how hard it is educating her kids. Mr. Kerry choked up and had to wipe tears from his eyes. He won the New Hampshire primary and the Democratic nomination.

And the early reaction, at least in the room, was that Mrs. Clinton’s emotion may have helped her.

“She really loves us and wants us to succeed in the world,” said Ms. Pernold Young, who said she was wavering between Mrs. Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. “I think she’s real now. There’s a person there.”

Mrs. Clinton has for years struggled with likability. Some voters see her as smart at espousing policy but lacking in sincerity. That means an emotional moment could work in her favor, political pundits say.

“The Muskie episode was out of anger, and it was in a time when men just didn’t cry,” says Mel Dubnick, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire. But in Mrs. Clinton’s case, she “showed a softer side that everyone can accept.”
Strong emotions on and off the campaign trail, clockwise from upper left: Hillary Clinton, yesterday; John Kerry, 2003; Pat Schroeder, 1987; and Edmund Muskie, 1972.

Doug Hattaway, a New Hampshire spokesman for the Clinton campaign, says the exchange wasn’t planned. “It was a genuine moment,” he said.

When asked about the episode during a campaign stop in New London, a chipper Mr. Obama said he didn’t know the specifics, but he said that “this process is a grind” and declined to comment further.

The Clinton campaign tried to boost her appeal in Iowa, but the effort seemed to fall flat. Mrs. Clinton came in a disappointing third place in the state behind Mr. Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. She now finds herself trailing Mr. Obama in New Hampshire by as much as 10 points, according to recent polls.

“Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds, and we do it, each one of us, because we care about our country,” she said, to approving nods and soft applause from the 15 women and one man gathered around a wooden table with plates of fresh pastries.

Allison Hampton, 59 years old, a retired teacher who was leaning toward voting for Mr. Obama, says she’ll now go with Mrs. Clinton. “When she broke up at the end, that came from the heart,” Mrs. Hampton said. “She’s genuine and extremely intelligent.”

–T.W. Farnam contributed to this article.

Corrections & Amplifications: Hillary Clinton replied to a voter’s question: “I have so many opportunities from this country … .” The initial version of this article incorrectly quoted her as saying: “I have so many ideas for this country … .”

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry cried while campaigning in New Hampshire in 2003. This article incorrectly said the Kerry incident was in 2004.

Write to Amy Chozick at amy.chozick@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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