Teary Hillary may win more voters

PORTSMOUTH, N.H.""After weeks of trying to soften her image, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's teary response Monday 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 Clinton during a breakfast with undecided voters at the Cafe Espresso here. "Who does your hair?"

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 ideas for this country and I just don't want to see us fall backwards as a nation. This is very personal for me."

Clinton is known for sticking to her standard 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 Monday.

Clinton wasn't the first to shed tears 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 New Hampshire's conservative Manchester Union-Leader, which had attacked his wife. He later said that 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. 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 Clinton's emotion may have helped her.

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

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 Clinton's case she "showed a softer side that everyone can accept."

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 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. Clinton came in a disappointing third place in the state behind Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. She now finds herself trailing 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 Obama, says she'll now go with Clinton. "When she broke up at the end, that came from the heart," Hampton said. "She's genuine and extremely intelligent."

T.W. Farnam contributed to this article

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