MANCHESTER, N.H. — The event room at the Puritan Backroom restaurant was overflowing with people, and all eyes were fixed on Hillary Clinton, who stood on a low stage at the front of the room, framed by a deep blue New Hampshire flag.
As she neared the end of her speech, she talked about her family history.
“My grandfather worked in the Scranton Lace Mills in Scranton, Pennsylvania,” she told the crowd, many of them from organized labor groups. “He always believed his hard work would pay off for his children, and it did. My father got to go to college.”
Clinton’s talk of her working-class roots is especially important for the former secretary of state in this year’s Democratic primary. Her main competitor for the Democratic nod, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has built his campaign on a message of economic populism, taking on what he calls the influence of the “billionaire class.” Now he’s rising in the polls, beating Clinton in New Hampshire and neck and neck with her in the other vital early voting state of Iowa.
The contest for the Democratic nomination, which many observers initially saw as a virtual formality for the front-runner, has turned into an unexpectedly fierce battle as Clinton has faced Sanders’ challenge from the left of the party. In order to take on Sanders, Clinton has shifted tone and announced new policies to head off unrest among left-leaning Democrats. They are tempted by Sanders’ rhetoric about the economy and the outsize influence of big money and large corporations on U.S. elections.
Clinton started a recent swing through New Hampshire and kicked off her national Women for Hillary efforts with a rally in Portsmouth. While on the coast, she also picked up an endorsement from New Hampshire Sen. and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Later Clinton addressed labor supporters in Manchester.
The crowds were noticeably smaller than those that greeted Sanders or Republican candidate Donald Trump on their recent visits to the Granite State. Sanders has an 11-point lead over Clinton in there, according to the most recent NBC News/Marist University poll, though Clinton remains well ahead of Sanders nationally.
Sanders’ early strength poses a policy as well as an image dilemma for Clinton, who so far has seemed unwilling to take on her opponent directly even as her tone shifts. At the Manchester rally, Clinton kept her attacks focused squarely on Republican economic and social policies, including plans to defund Planned Parenthood and deport undocumented immigrants. She singled out GOP front-runner and real estate mogul Donald Trump, saying he represents the Republican Party as a whole.
“You know, somehow the party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump,” Clinton told supporters, repeating a line used elsewhere. “That is sad news for all Americans, whether you’re a Republican or not.”
Clinton did not mention Sanders, but some of her top party backers have taken swipes at the senator on the campaign trail, according to Politico.
Media reports accused Clinton of taking a veiled swipe at Sanders on Sept. 4, when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked her about the Sanders and Trump campaigns. “You can come with your own ideas, and you can wave your arms and give a speech,” Clinton answered. “But are you connecting with and really hearing what people are either saying to you or wishing that you would say to them?”
Asked about the comment during a press conference after the Manchester rally, Clinton said she was talking about Trump and the Republican Party, not Sanders. “It certainly is clear that my campaign is focused on the Republicans. That’s who I talk about, that’s who I criticize, because I think they deserve it,” she said.
‘It certainly is clear that my campaign is focused on the Republicans. That’s who I talk about, that’s who I criticize, because I think they deserve it.’
Democratic presidential candidate
Clinton’s reticence to go on the offensive against Sanders is matched by the Vermont senator’s campaign, which too has remained mostly focused on attacking Republicans and systemic issues in need of reform. Despite the apparent truce and Clinton’s shift left, there are important differences between their campaigns, according to Susan Moir, who directs the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
“The Democratic Party has failed on economics. So there is not a party that is really speaking to the issues of economic inequality and growing inequality in this country. Bernie's candidacy — that’s the reason it’s taken off,” she explained.
Clinton addressed issues like paid sick leave, college debt and raising the minimum wage at recent campaign stops in New Hampshire. She also took on corporate malfeasance, tying it to the theme of her Portsmouth rally, which focused on women’s issues. “Holding corporations accountable when they gouge us on drug prices, pollute our environment or exploit workers are women’s issues,” she said.
However, she was far less direct than Sanders in much of her campaign language. His stump speeches include lines about the “billionaire class,” calls for jailing Wall Street bankers and frequent mentions of his campaign’s grass-roots funding rather than reliance on wealthy backers. That represents a real difference between the two candidates, according to experts.
“It was inevitable that somebody from the left was going to emerge to get her to try to take positions that were different, particularly on economic and social issues,” said Linda Fowler, a research professor in the department of government at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire.
‘The Democratic Party has failed on economics. So there is not a party that is really speaking to the issues of economic inequality and growing inequality in this country. Bernie [Sanders’] candidacy – that’s the reason it’s taken off.’
Labor Resource Center, University of Massachusetts
But there is little doubt that Clinton is able to attract fervent support, despite a campaign widely seen as faltering and so far disappointing. Jessica Poznanski, 25, stood in the bright sun after Clinton’s rally in Manchester, showing a friend a book that Clinton signed. “Oh, my God, she’s going to be so excited,” Poznanski said, showing off the autograph addressed to her mother and then dismissing concerns that Clinton might need Sanders to nudge her left.
“I think she’s got it on her own. I don't think she needs any push from anybody,” Poznanski said. “She’s a pretty tough woman on her own.” For her, the choice comes down to one of experience and reputation.
“We have a tough choice to make, and I'm not a huge fan of all the Republican candidates. I think Bernie Sanders has some points and he’s there, but I think Hillary Clinton just has a better reputation than everybody else who’s out there,” she said.
Inside the restaurant, Laura Hainey, the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ New Hampshire chapter, also said that Clinton is the more experienced candidate. The national union has endorsed Clinton, and Hainey is an avid supporter. “Just like a teacher in a school system, experience matters,” she said.
Meanwhile, other supporters said Clinton could learn from Sanders’ progressive policy stances and his unscripted campaign style. That echoes long-running characterizations of Clinton as too guarded and unrelatable — a common criticism during her 2008 campaign. By contrast, many supporters describe Sanders as authentic and plainspoken.
“I love his plain talk,” said Janet Rice, 61, of Gloucester, Mass. “I'm hoping that maybe his opinions are going to sway her a little bit more to the left from the center and maybe give her the courage to really speak her mind in this political atmosphere, which is so incredibly combative. I'm just hoping that she can be more of herself.”