MANCHESTER, N.H. — Even more than New York, which she represented in the Senate or Arkansas, where she served as first lady, or the Illinois of her childhood, New Hampshire has provided the most dramatic backdrop for Hillary Clinton’s nearly half century in politics.
As a 20-year-old college student, Hillary Rodham came to New Hampshire to campaign for antiwar troubadour Eugene McCarthy in his seemingly quixotic challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 primary. Twenty-four years later in the run-up to another New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton stood by her man in a steely joint “60 Minutes” interview about Bill Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers.
In 2008, reeling from a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary became the “Comeback Kid” in her own right when, after shedding a few public tears, she defied the polls to defeat Barack Obama in the opening-gun primary. And here in New Hampshire this February, Clinton learned to her dismay that Bernie Sanders was a serious contender for the nomination rather than just a left-wing gadfly.
So it was fitting Sunday night, as Clinton returned to this swing state for the last time in 2016, that she went beyond campaign boilerplate to talk about the biggest challenge she would face as president. Her confidence stemmed, in part, from her exoneration just a few hours earlier in the email scandal by that human weathervane, FBI Director James Comey.
Sharing the stage with Khizr Khan, campaigning for the first time since he electrified the Democratic convention, Hillary said in a conversational tone, “We will have some work to do to bring about healing and reconciliation after this election. I want to be president of all Americans … because we have to heal this country.”
The entire Manchester rally could be seen as a tonal and stylistic rebuke to the hatemongering of Donald Trump, who will be fulminating at a hockey arena here Monday night. The good-natured, fleece-wearing Hillary crowd, which filled the auditorium attached to the downtown Radisson Hotel, were the kind of upscale voters whom you might spot at a James Taylor concert.
In fact, until Hillary arrived, it was a James Taylor concert.
Unlike Jay Z and Beyonce, who appeared with Clinton over the weekend in a get-out-the-vote drive in Cleveland, Taylor is the kind of performer whom Hillary herself probably listens to when younger staffers are not trying to force the 69-year-old candidate to seem hip and current in her musical tastes. Hillary can certainly relate to lyrics that Taylor sang Sunday night: “I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end/I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.”
Even in the closing days of this debilitating campaign, Clinton has yet to discover an inspirational theme, a clarion call that will define the next four years. Her final campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” is unlikely to provide the framework for an inaugural address if she is sworn in as the 45th president.
In fact, the most memorable words Sunday night were delivered by Khizr Khan: “Mr. Trump, this isn’t your America. On Tuesday, we’re going to prove that America belongs to all of us.” For her part, Hillary talked earnestly about “ladders of opportunity” and pledged to be “the best small business president we’ve ever had.”
But, for all her flaws as a candidate, Hillary may be inspirational enough. As someone who came of age in the 1950s and knows what it is like to worry in elementary school about a mushroom cloud, Clinton does bring a passion to her stump speech when she raises the specter of Trump bristling with nuclear weapons.
A new statewide poll, released less than two hours after Hillary left the stage in Manchester Sunday night, showed Clinton with a hefty 48 percent to 38 percent lead over Trump. The Granite State Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, is in sharp contrast with other recent surveys showing the race here knotted.
According to Andy Smith, who directs the Granite State Poll, the key variable is that Clinton is the candidate of a united Democratic Party while Trump has the backing of only 80 percent of Republicans. “You can’t win with 80 percent support in a state like this that leans Democratic,” Smith said. In contrast, 94 percent of New Hampshire Republicans were behind Mitt Romney at a similar point in 2012 — and he still lost the state by 40,000 votes.
With an unemployment rate of just 2.9 percent and the highest proportion of college graduates of any swing state, New Hampshire always seemed a reach for Trump and his down-market populism. The old-line manufacturing jobs that Trump wants to bring back had already disappeared from the mill towns of New Hampshire by the time that Michael Dukakis ran for president in 1988.
Because Trump won the February primary with 35 percent of the vote, the glib assumption (backed, in part, by many polls) has been that this is a Democratic state that the bilious billionaire could pick off. But that would require Trump to have expanded his base of passionate supporters.
“I never thought that Trump was a good candidate here for the general election,” said Tom Rath, a leading Republican strategist who backed John Kasich in the primary. “And I think that the people that you will see at a Trump rally tonight are the same people that you would have seen at a Trump rally in January.”
With angry cries of “Lock her up” likely to reverberate through the 11,000-seat hockey arena Monday night as Trump speaks, it is hard to see how Clinton, if elected, will achieve the healing and reconciliation that she craves. But it is telling that in New Hampshire — the state where an earnest Wellesley student went door-to-door in 1968 — Hillary Rodham Clinton began talking on Sunday night about life after Election Day.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.