Hillary: Up close and impersonal?

Whatever a flagging campaign looks like, it surely bears no resemblance to the wave of adulation Hillary Clinton stirred in San Antonio last week.

It’s always dangerous to read too much into election-year crowds, but Clinton’s February 13 appearance at St. Mary’s University’s Bill Greehey Arena seemed to contradict several tenets of current conventional wisdom: Clinton’s campaign is dispirited and in disarray; Latinos no longer favor her over Barack Obama; and her hard-nosed determination to make this election a referendum on competence and experience is leaving young voters cold.

At 6 p.m., a half-hour after the rally began, a mile-long line continued to snake its way from the arena, with thousands of Clinton enthusiasts clinging to the slim hope that they’d be able to squeeze into the basketball coliseum (many of those who didn’t make it inside patiently waited by her bus for a post-rally glimpse). Inside, mariachis played everything from “The Aggie War Hymn” to “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” while State Representative Jose Menendez served as unofficial emcee. Menendez quickly established the night’s two key themes: Hillary is better prepared for the presidency than Obama, and she has deep roots in South Texas. “Folks, we’re blessed in the Democratic Party to have the two best candidates of all the ones running,” Menendez said. “And I’m sure both of them could serve. But the question is who’s ready to serve today.”

The heavily female, predominantly Latino crowd roared, waved blue-and-white
Clinton placards, and started chanting: “Hill-ary,

It’s telling that the song which Hillary uses most to pump up her crowds is Bachman-
Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” while Obama favors Stevie Wonder’s flashier “Signed Sealed Delivered.” Her name carries a rock-star aura, but everything about Clinton’s campaign feels workmanlike. She extols preparation, command of small details, tireless effort, and roll-up-your-sleeves efficacy. In a way, it’s a message as optimistic as Obama’s celebrated politics of hope, but it’s delivered in the deliberate, flash-card prose of a schoolteacher rather than the electric poetry of a preacher.

“In case anyone outside of Texas is confused, let’s make it clear to them that Texas is Clinton Country,” announced State Senator Carlos Uresti, who prodded the anxious enthusiasts to lure Clinton out by making more noise. He filled time by taking a voice poll to determine which section of San Antonio was best represented in the crowd. The West Side either had the biggest numbers or the most lung power.

Taking back the microphone, Menendez amiably hectored the crowd, saying that a win in the March 4 state primary was not sufficient - he demanded a landslide victory. “I need a commitment,” he said. “You need to take five people to the polls with you.”

By 6:50 p.m., he felt compelled to explain away the candidate’s tardiness by assuring attendees that Clinton was “busy talking to our community and couldn’t get away.” He appealed to Spanish speakers with a blatant homage to late farmworker leader César Chávez (and Obama’s “Yes we can” chants): “Sí se puede con Hillary!”

At 7:10, Clinton finally emerged to the strains of “Taking Care of Business,” with County Judge Nelson Wolff, State Senator Leticia Van De Putte, and Carolina Rodriguez, wife of Congressman Ciro Rodriguez.

“We all know, in most cases, women are stronger and smarter, “a beaming Wolff drawled, drawing a laugh from Clinton. “Don’t you think it’s time?”

Van De Putte followed with implicit jabs at Obama. “Hillary Clinton does not need a road map to get to our neighborhood,” she said, suggesting that the same could not be said for the other Democrat in the race. “Some people talk about ‘can’. Hillary talks about ‘will.’”

The “some people” technique is one that both Obama and Clinton have mastered on the campaign trail in recent months: Nail your opponent without mentioning their name, so if anyone asks you why you’re being so negative, you can feign innocence.

Clinton, dressed in a yellow-and-black pantsuit, hugged Van De Putte at the end of the state senator’s remarks and gushed to her, “That was so great!” Picking up on the various speakers’ points about her time registering voters in San Antonio for George McGovern in 1972, Clinton enthused, “It’s where I became addicted to Mexican food.”

Clinton’s speech was largely boilerplate fare, but the staggering excitement that greeted her well-worn promises seemed to energize her. “Change happens whether we like it or not,” she said, in an obvious response to Obama’s mantra. “The issue isn’t whether we’re going to have change. It’s whether we’re going to have progress that makes a difference.”

Pushing the notion that Obama is a pie-in-the-sky dreamer while she’s an achiever, she added: “This doesn’t happen by wishing for it. It doesn’t even happen by hoping for it. We have hope. What we need is help.”

She drew cheers by calling for a minimum-wage hike and touting her universal health-care plan. She also trumpeted a more obscure proposal: the creation of a public-service academy, which would prepare Americans for public-service jobs in the same way our military academies prepare our troops for combat.

When she finished, the PA speakers blasted Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and the audience swayed. For Hillary Clinton, the hardest days are ahead, and she’ll unquestionably be working longer than 9 to 5.

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