ROCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Eight years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in New Hampshire as a presidential candidate with something to prove.
“We have to pick a president who is ready on day one to do the job — the tough, difficult job that will await,” she told a cheering audience at a Democratic party fundraising dinner in January 2008. “I know how to stand my ground.”
Back then, Clinton believed she needed to project an image of strength and experience in order to convince voters she could be the first woman to serve as commander-in-chief — a “kind of tough single parent” rather than a “first mama,” as her chief strategist Mark Penn described at the time.
This time around, as she mounts her second run for the White House, Clinton’s gender isn’t something she seeks to explain or defend. Rather, her potential to make history as the nation’s first female president has become one of her biggest applause lines.
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It’s an approach that also addresses what many saw as a failing of her 2008 campaign, when Clinton was seen as wooden and overly scripted.
“I realize I might not be the youngest candidate in this race,” she said again last week at another Democratic party dinner in New Hampshire. “But with your help, I will be the youngest woman president.”
Clinton’s decision to fully embrace her gender is a strategic revision that reflects both a personal evolution and a wider cultural shift in the country. In the early weeks of her presidential bid, she has staked her campaign on distinctly domestic issues such as childcare and education.
Her first policy push was a pledge to make pre-K education universal, coupled with a tax cut to help parents with the costs of raising young children. She never misses a chance to tell audiences about the struggles of her mother, Dorothy, and hopes for the future of her granddaughter, Charlotte.
“Everything we need to do in our country really starts with how we treat our children,” Clinton said at a recent campaign event, surrounded by parents and preschoolers at a YMCA in Rochester, New Hampshire. “My mother really taught me that everyone needs a chance, and everyone needs a champion.”
Her voice cracked with emotion at the event as she promised a woman raising her grandchildren that she would do everything she could to improve childcare for young kids. A few days later at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Las Vegas, she made an impassioned push for parents to read, talk and sing to their babies — arguing that helping kids is an economic initiative to prepare the country for “the jobs for tomorrow.”
“There will be some who wonder, ‘If she’s running for president, why is she talking about babies and toddlers,'” Clinton said. “Do I love little kids? You bet I do. Always have. But do I love this country and want it to be successful? Absolutely.”
The decision to infuse gender into her campaign reflects a strategic calculation that Clinton’s last presidential run fundamentally changed what voters expect in a president and helped foster the growth of a feminist presence online that is ready to pounce on anything resembling sexism.
Those close to Clinton say that her success at making initiatives for women and girls worldwide a key part of her tenure as secretary of state convinced her that she could do the same in a presidential campaign. Her mother’s death in 2011 prompted the fiercely private politician to become more open with her personal story.
“Both she and her campaign are at ease with making the point: What does it mean for women to run for president?” said Ann Lewis, a former senior adviser to Clinton. “It’s in the fabric of her message.”
Clinton and her staff believe that her almost-successful last run settled the debate over having a female commander-in-chief. “Part of what I tried to do in that campaign was to begin to answer that question,” she said last week in an interview with The Des Moines (Iowa) Register. “Now I feel like the question’s been answered.”
And after seeing several Republican stumbles in recent elections on issues including rape and conception, those close to Clinton’s effort believe her gender is an advantage.
“Women understand the challenges that women and families face in their daily lives,” said Jessica O’Connell, the executive director of Emily’s List and the former national director of operations for Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
Last week in New Hampshire, Clinton was relaxed and playful as she settled into a rocking chair at the Strafford County YMCA and prepared to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to a group of preschoolers.
“You’ve got to get closer, because you have to help me with this,” she told the children as cameras flashed. “I’ve got to learn how to read it for my granddaughter.”
Circling behind her was a video camera manned by Jim Margolis, her media adviser, carefully capturing those grandmother moments for history — and future campaign ads.
Follow Lisa Lerer on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/llerer