MANCHESTER, N.H./Hundreds of Hillary Clinton supporters huddled together in a large party room at Manchester's Chateau Restaurant to cheer their candidate during Saturday night's supposedly crucial but oddly anticlimactic debate. The crowd was mostly from out of state, with a large, loud, friendly contingent from Local 17 of the United Sheet Metal Workers Union.
"Our guys are kind of macho, but she's a rock star to them," said the union's Washington-based political director Vincent Panvini. Panvini and the union's business agent Ed Foley, based in nearby Hooksett, say they're not worried about the Barack Obama surge. "The people of New Hampshire know the Clintons," Foley said, doubting most voters would ultimately go for Obama, "a younger person who doesn't have her experience."
The union's Dennis Gionet, also a local, was a tiny bit less sure. "Obama's popular, he has a younger crowd, they're knocking on people's doors three or four times. And some people fear the independents will cross over," Gionet said. Foley reassured him: "Nah, they'll go for McCain." State Sen. Betsy De Vries, a retired firefighter, was another voice of confidence. "Yes, they're bringing in a younger, college crowd, but they can't vote here." She echoed the union leaders that Clinton will win New Hampshire, although recent polls have been gloomier.
This was an upbeat crowd, but there wasn't a whole lot of whooping it up during the debate. Clinton got by far the biggest hand with the line: "I think I am an agent of change. Having the first woman president is a huge change." They enjoyed it when she said Obama "could have a debate with himself" because he changed positions so many times, especially on health care.
But John Edwards got the loudest boos: Clearly he decided he's running against Clinton more than Obama, defending the Illinois senator against Clinton's charges. "Any time you speak out for change, you're attacked. The forces of the status quo are going to attack...He believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change. We didn't see these kinds of attacks when she was ahead. Now that she's not, we hear them." The boos got louder. Panvini walked over and said the attacks would backfire. "Remember Rick Lazio. Vinnie knows." Clinton got a big hand when she hit back at Edwards, after he took credit for co-writing the Patients Bill of Rights. "Can we just have a reality break for a minute? I think it's important to make some kind of assessment. The Patients' Bill of Rights never got through the House. We don't have it. We've got to have a plan and a real push."
After the debate, some of the volunteers seemed genuinely surprised, and ecstatic, when Clinton herself arrived to thank them, along with her husband, the former president. "I think we had a good night tonight," she told the crowd and she expressed optimism about her fate in New Hampshire, semi-subtly dissing the Iowa caucuses. "I feel really good about New Hampshire: it's an election. You can actually persuade people to come out and vote, it's a private ballot, they can express their opinions." Clinton mingled for about 20 minutes and then moved to another room for private photo-taking with a diverse group of Bronx Democrats, while her husband stayed with the larger crowd and, as he's known to do, shook the hand of every single person in the room who approached him.
In the women's bathroom after the debate I ran into Bonnie Berger, a volunteer from Boston who, like Clinton herself, expressed optimism about the New York senator's chances in the Tuesday election compared to last week's caucuses. Having just arrived from Iowa, she remarked on the influx of out-of-staters for Obama, and their impact on the caucuses. Just then another woman came out of a stall and said, "I've got eight Obama supporters sleeping at my house," and confessed she herself supported Obama; she'd come with a group of Hillary-supporting friends. Asked why she backed Obama, she said, "They're all great, but you have to pick one," she said. She wouldn't give me her name; what happens in the ladies' room stays in the ladies' room.
But she was the only undercover Obama supporter I ran into. These were Clinton loyalists, and they professed to be unconcerned about the Iowa results. Victoria Medina from Manhattan, who's been canvassing for Clinton, disputed talk of a big post-Iowa Obama surge. "I'm not seeing it," Medina said, adding that while some of the crowd was most thrilled by the presence of President Clinton, she was a diehard Hillary fan. "She's on her own in our state and we've seen what she can do."