Politics & Government

N.H. Clinton supporters slow to follow her embrace of Obama

Sen. Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press / MCT

UNITY, N.H. — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton plan a show of unity in this tiny New Hampshire town on Friday, but much of the crowd that will be watching them, as well as Democrats throughout this swing state, isn't yet ready to follow their lead.

Many echo the view of veteran Claremont political activist Ray Gagnon, who said "this is a good first step," but he's still less than enthusiastic.

The former rivals will campaign at Unity Elementary School, their first joint public appearance since the Illinois senator clinched his party's nomination earlier this month. They also were to appear together before a private gathering of Clinton fundraisers in Washington on Thursday night.

Although the tone Friday will be relentlessly upbeat, underneath the cheers will be the still-raw emotions of Clinton backers, as well as the wait-and-see reservations of lots of Democrats still wanting to know more about Obama.

"I felt good about Hillary Clinton. I loved Bill Clinton. I thought he did a fantastic job," said Tammy Dowd, a secretary from Unity.

Her impression of Obama?

"Inexperience," she said.

In another part of the state, Andrea DeMars, a Manchester college student, had similar thoughts. "Clinton had the experience. Obama doesn't really have it," she said.

Obama badly needs to win over wary voters such as these, because New Hampshire is one of November's swing states. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry, a senator from next-door Massachusetts, won the state's four electoral votes with 50.2 percent, while in 2000, Republican George W. Bush carried it with 48 percent, the only Northeastern state he won.

Unity, population 1,715, made its own claim for bellwether status in this year's January primary, as Obama and Clinton tied there with 107 votes each. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards trailed with 78.

Obama has carefully said all the right things about Clinton in recent weeks, and his wife, Michelle, addressed a Manchester audience Thursday and raved about her one-time foe. "Because of Hillary Clinton's work on issues of importance to women," she said, "those issues are front and center in this election."

Still, plenty of tension remains between the camps.

Obama has said he'll help the New York senator pay off her $22 million campaign debt, but so far has given her backers no prominent roles or assurances that she'll have a major role at the August convention.

The only major Clinton staffer to go to work for Obama has been Patti Solis Doyle, who was fired as Clinton's campaign manager earlier this year and demonized by Clinton's backers for overseeing the collapse of her effort. Solis Doyle will be the chief of staff to Obama's eventual vice presidential nominee.

Clinton herself has been conciliatory. Her concession speech June 7 in downtown Washington was viewed as a strong signal to supporters to get behind Obama, and the political pros expect more of the same Friday.

"This will send a solid message to Democrats," said Kathy Sullivan, a Manchester lawyer who co-chaired Clinton's state campaign, "and it shows Democrats in this state they're taking New Hampshire seriously."

John Cloutier, the Sullivan County Democratic chairman, saw other symbolism in the Unity rally.

"It reminds everyone that pocketbook issues matter," since the Unity area, he said, "can be compared to West Virginia" — which Clinton won.

Unity is a lush green blip on a hilly highway, easy to miss.

There's no traffic light or gas station. People gather at Will's Place — the only general store — or the town hall, and complain about high gasoline prices. But unemployment is low, and life is peaceful and sometimes crazy: The annual report recalled how traffic stopped one day in September when a Jersey cow blocked the highway.

At Town Hall, Board of Selectmen Chairman Willard Hathaway reckoned that the biggest thing that ever happened here was a zoning fight a couple of years ago over whether a builder could build retirement homes that cost six figures. The answer was no.

Change comes slowly here, so few Democrats see the Clinton-Obama appearance Friday as likely to ignite a sudden burst of energy.

Some simply have too much affection for Clinton to suddenly embrace her rival.

Gagnon, former mayor of Claremont, recalled that when Bill Clinton was running for president in 1991, he learned that a local paintbrush plant was in trouble.

"He mentioned how he was governor of Arkansas, and Wal-Mart was based there and had a Buy America program," Gagnon said. Clinton hooked up the Claremont executives with Wal-Mart, and before long the brush company was running three local shifts.

"It's not that we dislike Obama," Gagnon said, "but people just have a real fondness and loyalty to the Clintons."

In downtown Claremont, about seven miles from Unity, bookstore owner Laurel Eaton still has her "Hillary" button on the bulletin board behind the cash register. Eaton seethes at what she saw as sexism in the news media over the campaign, and beams when describing how she was able to go to the polls with her 18-year-old daughter and vote for a woman.

"I just can't take the button down. I can't do it yet," Eaton said.

Others want to know more about Obama, such as Deandra Perruccio, a Pelham environmental consultant. "I'm a little worried about Obama's lack of experience with so many things," she said.

Dowd is trying to learn more, too, and was distracted earlier this week when someone gave her a picture showing former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Clinton pledging allegiance to the flag while Obama stands beside them, hands clasped in front of him.

One hour-long rally Friday is unlikely to make that talk stop right away.

"It's probably a hoax," Dowd said of the picture. "But that's been the number one political topic in this town today."

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