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Hillary Clinton's voice

The Democratic presidential hopeful has effectively turned her well-publicized emotional response to a voter's question into a strategic vehicle to revive her campaign.
/ Source: National Journal

We've all seen the video clip of an exhausted tearing up Monday morning in Portsmouth. Celebrating a stunning primary win here the following night, however, she had effectively turned those tears into a strategic vehicle to revive her campaign. For now, at least, it has worked. But is Clinton's call to focus on her personal side ultimately what she needs to do to win?

"Over the last week, I listened to you," she said Tuesday night to cheering supporters packed into her victory party here on an unseasonably warm January night. "And in the process, I found my own voice."

While no Clinton aide would dream of reliving the dark days between Iowa and New Hampshire -- days of internal finger-pointing, recriminations and moments of self-doubt -- Clinton's third-place finish in the Hawkeye State was exactly what her campaign needed to avoid a premature demise. A brief glance into the jaws of defeat forced her to shed the "front-runneritis" she developed in 2007 while riding the aura of inevitability. She stepped back, recrafted her message and, as she said, found an internal voice that resonated with voters on levels that no speech on college loans or health care ever could.

What will Clinton's new "voice" say? And how, exactly, will she use it?

It will, for one thing, say less about Clinton and more about the voters she wants to win over. Or, perhaps, win back.

To wit, when Clinton launched her campaign nearly a year ago, she coined the phrase, "I'm in it, and I'm in it to win it." On Tuesday night, Clinton retooled that message. "I'm in it," she said, "and I'm in it for the American people." Last week in Iowa, aides placed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright prominently behind Clinton as the senator delivered a plodding concession speech. Albright, the first female secretary of state, was placed there to highlight the campaign's historic potential. But Albright was nowhere to be seen Tuesday night; supporters standing behind Clinton at Southern New Hampshire University were almost entirely under the age of 30. Her husband, while on stage, was intentionally off camera.

"This campaign is about the future, the future of the American people," one Clinton campaign aide said Tuesday. "We knew that before, but, yeah, I think it's safe to say we know that even better now."

As the campaign tries to navigate the uncharted waters of Clinton's voice, however, there are already warning signs of a backlash.

They're dealing with a double-edged sword; Clinton historically has drawn support most rapidly, especially from women, when she's viewed as a victim -- the wife of an unfaithful husband, the target of an overly aggressive conservative machine, even the prey of a GOP Senate rival in New York (Rick Lazio) as he invaded her personal space during a debate in 2000. Following the Jan. 5 debate in New Hampshire in which she was double-teamed by and , she drew upon that well of support last Tuesday. At the same time, she has drawn voters' scorn most reliably when she becomes overexposed. Aides have apparently decided that, during a campaign in which overexposure is a foregone conclusion and a necessary evil, building her support among women by framing her in personal terms as a victim is a safe road to travel.

But aides say Clinton may have found another "voice" in the warm climes of New Hampshire, one that has less to do with voters and more to do with her. As she and Obama take their two-person race to Nevada and South Carolina, look for Clinton, who has been reluctant to draw direct negative contrasts with Obama, to start doing so more aggressively and in more personal terms on issues like Iraq, ethics and Obama's themes of hope and change.

Her ability to find a balance -- opening up at the same time she's opening fire -- will be key to her survival.