POLITICS

Hillary Clinton's Standing In New Hampshire: More Dominant Than Ever

04/13/2015 07:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. -- New Hampshire state Sen. David Pierce had a bounce in his step as he made his way to church in his Upper Connecticut River Valley district on Sunday morning.

After a particularly punishing winter, it was the first warm morning of the season. But the second-term Democrat had something besides the nice weather to put him in a good mood.

Upon returning to his home in Lebanon, Pierce began refreshing his Twitter feed over and over again until the official word came shortly before 2 p.m.: Hillary Clinton was in.

Without wasting another moment, Pierce headed to his garage and pulled down from the wall a dusty old yard sign that had been lying in storage for almost eight years: “New Hampshire For Hillary.”

Pierce stuck the 2007-era campaign sign in his front yard and set to work raking up the dead grass that surrounded it.

Operatives from Clinton's nascent 2016 presidential campaign haven’t yet gotten around to asking Pierce for his endorsement, but they don’t need to.

“I’m hoping I can legitimately claim that I had the first Hillary lawn sign of the 2016 campaign season,” Pierce, who helped organize for Clinton’s 2008 campaign as a state representative, told The Huffington Post. “So that should tell you who I’m voting for.”

Pierce isn’t the only New Hampshire Democratic official who has aligned himself closely with Clinton’s campaign before the front-runner has even solidified her plans to visit the first-in-the-nation primary state sometime in the coming days.

As she headed out on her road trip to Iowa on Sunday, there was little reason to believe that Clinton would face much of a challenge on her way to an expected victory there -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- once the first Democratic voting contests of the 2016 election begin next February.

But on the off chance that she once again gets tripped up by the eccentricities of the Iowa caucuses, as she did in 2008, Clinton can take comfort in the knowledge that just a few days later, New Hampshire will be there to once again come to her rescue.

The state has always been good to the Clintons. From Bill Clinton's second-place finish that launched him as the “comeback kid” in 1992 to Hillary’s come-from-behind triumph in 2008 that kept her candidacy viable for months to come, New Hampshire has twice kept their presidential dreams afloat.

But even in a state that has historically served as her family’s political firewall, Clinton's standing is stronger than ever. While her support among Democratic Party officers, elected officials and rank-and-file voters in the state may not be unanimous, no non-incumbent candidate has ever been in a more dominant position in New Hampshire at this early stage than Clinton is today.

Never mind her overwhelming strength in the polls here. It’s gotten to the point where official endorsements have become a matter of course.

Consider the email that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) -- who signed a letter back in 2013 along with all of her fellow female Democratic senators backing Clinton’s then-prospective bid -- sent to supporters on Sunday.

“Hillary Clinton just announced her campaign for president—and to elect her as our first woman president, we all have to rally behind her starting right now,” Shaheen wrote in the email, which featured a photograph of the senator standing arm-in-arm with Clinton. “New Hampshire holds the first-in-the-nation primary – it’s up to us to jump-start Hillary’s race for the White House, giving her an unshakable advantage.”

Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s popular Democratic governor, is another close ally, and Clinton’s support within the New Hampshire Democratic Party leadership is as solid as can be.

In a February appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball," host Chris Matthews was left in stitches as New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley declined to even assert that the state should have Democratic primary debates, as Matthews prodded him to admit that the debates should take place “as a matter of principle."

"There has to be more than one candidate to be able to have a debate, and we don't know if there is going to be more than one candidate at this point," Buckley said.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of encouragement that other potential Democratic candidates, like former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and former Gov. Lincoln Chaffee (D-R.I.), were hoping to hear.

On Monday, however, Buckley sounded far more agreeable to the idea of a competitive, multi-candidate field.

"New Hampshire Democrats are incredibly excited to have our first official candidate jump in the race,” he said in a statement to HuffPost. "We encourage each candidate to visit every corner of the state, from Nashua to the North Country, to the Seacoast and, of course, Sullivan County."

But as the Clinton camp knows as well as anyone, New Hampshire’s long-held penchant for embracing underdogs means that nothing can be taken for granted here.

And there is a vocal element on the progressive left that is highly resistant to what it sees as an attempt by Democratic officials to circumvent the New Hampshire tradition of giving the little guy an honest shot.

“The people in power in Manchester -- they’re kind of a hollowed-out lot that basically look for a lucrative reason to support the people who look like the inevitable winner and can cut big checks,” said longtime New Hampshire progressive activist Arnie Arneson. “There’s the apparatus -- one part of the party -- and then there’s everybody else longing for a conversation -- something that doesn’t feel so corporate, so Wall Street, so hawkish.”

But aside from small pockets of resistance on the left, most influential Democrats here see little reason to beat around the bush about what is clear to everyone: New Hampshire is Clinton country.

“I think the landscape is very good for her,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro. “She did real person-to-person campaigning here [in 2008]. People got to know her, got to like her, and likability is very important in our business. They got to see the real Hillary Clinton up close and personal, and I think that residue remains.”

In addition to the campaign history, the newest version of the Clinton operation boasts New Hampshire roots that run deep.

Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, attended Hanover High School in Pierce’s upper Connecticut River Valley District -- a region that's a hotbed of progressive activism in the state.

And under Mook’s leadership, team Clinton has already left no doubt that it is looking to earn support from those who may have been disinclined to provide it initially.

Even before she declared her candidacy, Clinton-aligned operatives had asked plugged-in supporters to help them identify Democrats who voted for Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson in 2008, in order to find out what it will take to earn their support this time around.

Separately, longtime New Hampshire Democratic activists Ned Helms and Jim Demers -- both of whom were early and active Obama supporters in 2008 -- have for months been helping to pave the way for Clinton in New Hampshire via Ready For Hillary, a pro-Clinton group.

Terry Shumaker, a top-level veteran of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid in New Hampshire, said that Ready For Hillary's efforts in the state have made “a huge difference” in setting the stage for Clinton here in 2016.

“You can’t take New Hampshire for granted, and I have no doubt that she won’t take New Hampshire for granted,” Shumaker said. “Other than the living presidents, no one has a better idea of what it’s like to run for president than Hillary Clinton.”

And even though many of the old Clinton standbys are still around, there is a widespread conviction among supporters that things will run more smoothly this time.

New Hampshire Democratic Party National Committeewoman Kathy Sullivan, who was a Clinton co-chair in 2008, said that she has been heartened to see that egos seem to have been checked at the door, particularly on the heels of the internal dysfunction that helped to tarnish Clinton's last bid at the national level.

“I just want her to win, and I’m the kind of person who says whatever it takes to win, just tell me what job I’ve got to do,” Sullivan said. “I think she will win New Hampshire, but I think she’ll have to work hard to do it. From everything I’m hearing, she’ll do a lot of small-venue retail politics in order to interact with voters.”

Even if Clinton does not end up facing serious competition here, she has another good reason to spend plenty of time in New Hampshire rebuilding her organization over the next few months: Though the state has been trending Democratic in recent years, it figures once again to be a highly contested swing state in the 2016 general election.

And as Clinton knows as well as anyone, there are no guarantees in politics.

There are, however, massive likelihoods.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Bernie Sanders as a Democrat.

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