Can Clinton's Emotions Get the Best of Her?

How voters interpret N.Y. senator's recent appearances could affect campaign.

ByABC News
January 7, 2008, 1:26 PM

Jan. 7, 2008 — -- How voters interpret Sen. Hillary Clinton's composure emotional, cold or just plain tough could be a deciding factor in her campaign for the presidency, political analysts told

Earlier today at a campaign event in New Hampshire, Clinton's voice broke and her eyes welled up with tears as she spoke to 16 undecided voters about her passion for the election as well as for the country.

The New York senator was taking questions from a primarily female group at Cafe Expresso in Portsmouth, when she choked up responding to one woman's question about how she stays "upbeat and so wonderful"?

"It's not easy, and I couldn't do it if I didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do," said Clinton, getting visibly emotional. "You know, I have so many opportunities from this country I just don't want to see us fall backwards."

"You know, this is very personal for me. It's not just political, it's not just public. I see what's happening, and we have to reverse it," she added, with her voice breaking and eyes growing teary.

And during Saturday's New Hampshire debates, Clinton became noticeably agitated as she responded to a statement made by former Sen. John Edwards, in which he defended Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's pledge for change and suggested Clinton was the candidate for the status quo.

"Making change is not about what you believe or about making a speech, it's about working hard," Clinton said after Edward's statement, in which he said, "Anytime you speak out for change, this is what happens. The forces for status quo are going to attack."

Then, a little bit louder, she said, "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I'm not running on a promise of change. But on 35 years of change. We don't need to raise false hopes of people in our country about what can be delivered."

"I think that having a first woman president is a huge change," said Clinton, raising her voice.

In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" today, Clinton defended her reaction in the New Hampshire debate.

"As you can tell from that, I'm passionate about change," Clinton said after rewatching the clip from the event.

But whether Clinton has appeared too emotional, too sensitive or too weak in her recent public appearances is still up for debate.

"I think outburst is an overstatement," said Howard Gold, professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., of Clinton's debate performance in New Hampshire. "Nevertheless, it was a strong reaction. But when I think of an outburst I think of Howard Dean screaming, and this isn't in the same category."

"I think it was pretty normal, because to be identified as a candidate of the status quo is a recipe for disaster," added Gold. "She had to and I think did respond forcefully."

But there is a line for a female candidate when it comes to speaking forcefully and appearing too "shrill," said Diana Owen, an associate professor of political science and the chair of American studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

"It's very hard to find the balance between appearing strong and tough and caring and engaged and then crossing your line to where you'll be labeled shrill and bitchy," said Owen. "As far as being a female candidate, she's open to different descriptive adjectives things like melting down or being too emotional that you would not hear as much in terms of male candidates."

"I'm sure the calculation said you've got to go hard and attack and appear as thought you're really taking this seriously," said Owen. "But she lost her cool."

And as to Clinton's latest emotional episode, Owen is more confident that her composure or lack thereof is a sign of her campaign's unraveling.

"Crying in a campaign at this stage is something you can't do male or female and history has shown that," said Owen. "It shows people weakness crying goes against both male and female stereotypes, neither can do it."

Becoming too emotional might very well be a detriment to her campaign, though some observers say her performance in New Hampshire didn't cross the line.

"I don't think she's gone overboard yet; the way she took on Obama was necessary," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "But now she can't just go on the attack and become too vicious because then she undermines what she's been campaigning for."

Clinton's appeareance today in which she fought back tears is different than being on the defensive, said Zelizer. "Crying tradition isn't great for candidates and it's not something usually that voters want to see and so it might be a little setback. But again, I don't think it's the kind of thing voters will ultimately weigh when they vote."

Of more concern, Zelizer added, is the overall appearance of the Clinton campaign since her loss in Iowa.

"Losing in Iowa and being on the defensive in the debate and now getting teary-eyed leads to a cumulative image that's not particular strong up front and it's not great," said Zelizer. "It creates nervousness [in voters] about your ability to keep control in situations."

Those voters who take Clinton's response in New Hampshire as too emotional, and her teary moment today as weak, may very well turn toward other candidates.

"[Her response in New Hampshire] was damaging and a lost opportunity," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll, which predicts Obama will be the winner of the New Hampshire Democratic primary. "Whether she would have won the primary had that not happened who knows, but it certainly didn't do her any good."

According to the poll, 42 percent of likely Democratic presidential primary voters think Obama is the most electable, compared with the 34 percent who prefer Clinton.