On the surface, it was a minor, if not inconsequential, event: on the short hop from Los Angeles to San Diego and back again, Hillary Clinton rode the press plane with reporters covering her campaign.
For those aware of the Clinton's distrust of and animosity toward the media, this small step in the direction of restoring relations with journalists exemplifies the new, post-Iowa Hillary.
In short order, prompted in part by recently hired advertising consultant Roy Spence, who specializes in "branding," the New York senator has become ostensibly humbled, prepared to focus more on voters ("you") than on herself ("I").
At a more substantive level, Mrs. Clinton is grasping a new weapon, a nose-diving economy that her strategists believe will play directly to her strengths.
The new Clinton is most visible in the ad "Listen" that she is running in both South Carolina and Nevada, featuring quotes excerpted from her New Hampshire victory speech:
"Over the last week I listened to you and in the process I found my own voice. You helped remind everyone that politics isn't a game. This campaign is about people. About making a difference in your lives. It's time we had a president who stands up for all of you."
In Las Vegas on Saturday, the former First Lady demonstrated the new Hillary humility:
"I don't believe this election is about me. I never believed that elections are about the speeches you make or the TV coverage you get, because when the camera turns off and the lights are down, what are you going to do to help somebody have a better life, what are you going to do?"
Fitting neatly into this other-directed game plan is a shift in the issue emphasis on the campaign trail, from her views and voting record on the Iraq war, to a re-emphasized concern with the economic hardships that a faltering economy is imposing on others.
"It brings out her strength," said one top adviser. "She is wonky, and this requires wonkiness, and this shows she cares about people."
In the aftermath of her loss to Obama in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton -- who had at times been adverse to taking audience questions -- opened up her public events to provide long Q and A periods. Upon her arrival in New Hampshire after her Iowa defeat, Clinton threw away her stump speech, and instead spoke uninterruptedly for only 10 minutes at the outset of events, and then took queries from the audience for an hour or more. [Read reports of those events here and here.]
Now, with the state caucuses looming on January 19, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on January 11 that Clinton has been going door to door in Latino neighborhoods there:
While Gilberto Santana and his wife, Elizabeth, told Clinton of their difficulties making ends meet, Clinton sat on their brown leather sofa, stroking the hair of their four-year-old daughter. . . . 'We're sort of struggling,' Santana said. 'We're getting there, but you have to be strong to make it.'" Clinton replied to the Santanas, "I feel so strongly that if we don't take care of our children, we don't take care of our future." At Lindo Michoacan, a Mexican restaurant, the article describes Clinton taking notes as she listened to the patrons. When an unidentified man said to her that his wife is in the country illegally, Clinton shot back to cheers and applause, "No woman is illegal."
At the same time, the refurbished Clinton is not restricting herself to affirmatives. She is equally focused on demonstrating that she is ready and willing to take on Obama:
"He was a part-time state senator for a few years, and then he came to the Senate and immediately started running for president.....And that's his prerogative. That's his right. But I think it is important to compare and contrast our records."
The Clinton campaign recently brought in Spence, a Texas advertising man and long-time friend, who has devised campaigns for Krispy Kreme and Wal-Mart, where Mrs. Clinton served on the board from 1986 to 1992 (an experience she deliberately low-balls, presumably because of Wal-Mart's history of vociferous anti-unionism).
Spence first won fame for such slogans as "Don't Mess With Texas" and Southwest Airlines' "You Are Now Free To Move About The Country." He has described his general business approach:
"It's incredibly important that we choose . . . clients carefully . . . . We look for companies with a culture of entrepreneurship and customer concern and for firms that will do whatever it takes to win . . . . If everyone's selling the same thing, what's going to be the tie-breaker? The first question we have when we do 'purpose based branding' is 'What business are you in?'...If you're running a business right now, the first thing you've got to do is figure out what business you're in -- the 'higher-calling' business. If you went out of business today, would anybody miss you? . . . . Southwest Airlines isn't in the transportation business. It's in the freedom business. . . . [Sam Walton] wanted to help normal people buy the things that rich people buy. . . . Fannie Mae's in the American dream business. Associates who work there have pictures of families on their desk. And they're not their own families. . . . Behind every lie, there's a moment of truth. . . . Know your customer. . . .You've got to get up a little earlier. You've got to stay up a little later. You've got to listen a little harder."
Clinton's comeback in New Hampshire demonstrated that she is exceptionally well equipped to absorb and respond with alacrity to adverse information -- the kind that came in a tidal wave the night of the January 3 Iowa caucuses.
The Nevada caucus will be the next test of her political skills, followed quickly by a tougher ordeal in the January 26 South Carolina primary. Whatever happens in those two states, both Clinton and Obama now have adequate resources and staff to insure a major, and perhaps decisive, confrontation on February 5 when an unprecedented 22 states will hold either primaries or caucuses to pick 2,075 delegates to the Democratic convention, just under half the total of 4,832 delegates.