HENNIKER, N.H. — The question was just what Hillary Clinton asked for when she came to a small college campus Saturday to directly tackle the exodus of support for her among young voters, many of whom are drawn to opponent Bernie Sanders.
A young woman, speaking slowly, told Clinton she had worked for her in 2008. A smiling Clinton thanked her. But then the woman posed among the toughest challenges anyone has yet put to the former secretary of state. It covered the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Clinton’s watch, and her use of a private email system for her government work.
“I’ve heard your somewhat pat answer,” that other secretaries of state had also used non-government email, the woman said. “But they didn’t have a private server.”
And why, she asked, did Clinton tell her daughter Chelsea Clinton on the night of the Benghazi attacks that they were the work of an al-Qaeda-like group, at a time when the public explanation was that a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video had turned deadly.
The exchange was part of a tweaked campaign strategy to engage young voters and others nonplussed by Clinton. She gave no speech here, just told the students, “I for one know that there are a lot of young people supporting my opponent, and I want you to know; even if you don’t support me, I support you.”
She invited questions from anyone on the fence about whom to support in Tuesday’s primary here, as well as anyone already supporting Sanders.
The first question went directly to her trustworthiness, the root of some of that voter unease. Clinton called that a “very fair” question, and she delivered a thoughtful answer that sought to turn on its head Sanders’s criticism of her as an establishment figure beholden to establishment interests.
“I know that I am viewed as a direct threat to the forces that call a lot of the shots in this country,” Clinton said. She listed her losing 1993 fight for a national health-care overhaul, which arrayed powerful insurance and pharmaceutical interests against her.
“And look, it’s not a stupid strategy. You sow doubts about somebody, you make claims about somebody, you undermine somebody, and even when it is not true, it leaves exactly the impression you have described, and I am well aware of that,” Clinton said. “Part of the reason I am running is I have stood up against these forces, I have stood on the front lines against them. I am still standing, and they are still trying to bring me down.”
But when the young woman stood to ask about Benghazi and emails, Clinton looked startled. She took a breath and began a lengthy examination of the 2012 attacks, sounding more defensive as she went. She did not answer the email question.
“When Benghazi happened, it was the fog of war. There was no clear understanding, and there wasn’t for many, many days,” Clinton said. The group that had initially claimed responsibility withdrew that claim a day later, after Clinton had sent the email, she said.
She spoke about other, contemporaneous attacks on U.S. facilities in the Mideast that were inspired by the American-made video, and suggested it probably was a large factor in the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“But in the end of the day it was a terrorist attack,” Clinton said. “I wish I could give you an absolute answer,” she added, before posing a question of her own.
“Why is this being used as a great political issue? I really regret it is.”
Benghazi rarely comes up in Clinton’s question and answer sessions on the road, and nothing about the episode is part of her standard stump speech.
The woman who posed the lengthy question did so hesitantly at first, and sounded nervous. But she kept going when others in the crowd murmured about the confrontational turn the session had taken, and sought to shush her. “Let me finish,” she said, and with Clinton’s encouragement she did. She did not say whether she planned to vote for Sanders, or anyone else.
Sanders’s iconoclastic appeal, however, was the main theme underlying many questions. Clinton said she gets it, and sees parallels to her own political awakening as a volunteer for longshot anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
“I am really happy to see so many young people involved in the political process, I really am,” she said.
“I know that Senator Sanders has a very big base of younger voters, and they’re not supporting me,” Clinton said. “I’m going to do everything I can to fix these problems, like debt in college and making college affordable, and that’s the way it should be,” she said.
She added that she won’t promise free college on the government dime, as Sanders does, because it would not solve the underlying problem of skyrocketing tuition.
Another woman asked Clinton why she is perceived as controlled or unexciting. Clinton sighed, smiled, and dove in.
Sanders, the wild-haired and passionate independent senator from Vermont, has a cool factor she may not possess, Clinton acknowledged. But she has a higher goal than cool, she suggested, and better qualifications for the job at issue.
“I do have a somewhat narrower path that I have tried to walk,” she said. “It comes across as a little more restrained, a little more careful, and I’m sure that’s true, which is why I love doing sessions like this,” she said.
She chalked up a lot of focus on her demeanor to the fact that she is a woman, although she did not suggest the question itself was sexist.
“I’m trying to be the first woman president of the United States of America. There’s never been one before, and so people don’t have an image. We’ve had 44 presidents. Men, white until President Obama. And here I come, I say I want to be your president, your commander in chief, and there’s just a lot of processing,” as the public considers what it means to have a woman presidential candidate, she said.
And after Clinton backer and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright brought down the house at an earlier event Saturday by warning, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Clinton had a word for women, and for her critics.
“It’s not just about me. It’s about young women, women of all ages, the expectations that are put upon you, and how you deal with them, and how you find your true voice, and how you stand up for yourself and who you become,” she said.
“But don’t take criticism personally. Take it seriously because maybe you’ll learn something you wouldn’t learn from a friend.”
“Part of what I have to do is be my best self, present the best way I know how. I am who I am I can’t do some sort of personality transformation,” she said. “I have to be true to myself.”