HAMPTON, N.H. - Here are a few things Hillary Clinton wants you to know about her:
She grew up “in a middle-class family, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the last century.” She got her first job when she was 13. She worked her way through college.
Her father turned off the heat in their Chicago home every night, even in the middle of winter. Her mother had “a very difficult childhood” marked by neglect and abandonment.
One of the most recognizable women in America is trying to re-introduce herself, and some of what she has to say might come as a surprise. Americans who formed their opinions of Clinton during her time as first lady are seeing a different side of her as she campaigns to become the nation’s first female president.
Image is everything in politics, and Clinton is blessed and cursed in that regard. No other presidential candidate in this election season generates the depth of emotions that cling to her. She’s been the most admired woman in the country for the past five years in a row - and one of the most disliked.
A Gallup Poll released Wednesday found that 52 percent of Americans view Clinton unfavorably, and only 45 percent favorably. Her favorability rating has slipped notably in recent months, Gallup reported, but it’s unclear why. And while she still remained the leading choice for president among Democrats, her previous double-digit lead was down to five points, at 31 percent vs. 26 percent for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
Her image has been shaped in part by at least two dozen books that have been written about her, from fawning biographies to vicious smear jobs.
Now Clinton is writing her own story, in a verbal autobiography that serves as the centerpiece of her stock campaign speech. During a swing through New Hampshire last weekend, she presented herself as a child of the heartland, steeped in traditional American values and the can-do spirit of the 1950s.
“Individual responsibility, hard work, self-reliance - that’s what I was taught,” she told a crowd of about 400 people at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H. “That’s what I saw around me.”
Her personal history, related at town hall meetings in Hampton and Manchester, is a story straight out of “Father Knows Best,” an idealized world where parents protected their children without pampering them, where neighbors looked after each other and where public officials were held in high esteem.
In addition to highlighting her middle-class roots, Clinton’s campaign narrative makes a larger point about her view of government as a force for good. She tells audiences that she grew up knowing that she could count on support from her parents, her neighbors and her government.
Although her parents paid the bulk of her expenses at Wellesley College, her father balked when she declared her intention to go to law school.
“He said, `That wasn’t part of the deal. You’re on your own,’” Clinton said in Hampton. “So I could go and get a very low-interest loan from my government.”
Her reminiscences touched on cultural milestones from the Cold War era - the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, President Kennedy’s physical fitness program for schoolchildren and Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
“I didn’t know how that would happen, but I didn’t doubt that it would. Because that’s what Americans did. We were the problem-solvers,” she said.
It’s a compelling story line, and a familiar one, to many of the aging baby boomers who turn out to see her.
“I come from a background very similar to hers, so I really connect with that,” said Pam Ford, a Hampton resident who works for an education testing company. “She comes across as much more caring than you get to see in a short clip on TV.”
Lauren Durgin, who drove more than an hour from her home in Braintree, Mass., to see Clinton, also came away impressed.
“I feel like she gets it. You can relate to her,” Durgin said.
In talking about her past, Clinton skips over the turmoil of the `60s and her transition from president of the Young Republicans at Wellesley to anti-war activist. And while introductory speeches at Clinton’s events almost invariably laud her as a path-breaking woman, she doesn’t make a big deal out of her gender.
“I’m not running as a woman,” she told a crowd at Central High School in Manchester. “I’m running because I think I’m the most qualified.”
Still, there’s no question that some voters are excited by the possibility of the first female president.
“I don’t know why there hasn’t been a woman yet. We should have that,” said Lisa Burns, a sophomore at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Neil Valentino, 58, a Vietnam veteran from Manchester, said he wants to break a pattern set by Bill Clinton and George Bush.
“I will not, if at all possible, vote for another white man of my generation,” he said. “We’ve had two already. They’re not that great.”