Clinton fires back over tears

January 7, 2008 8:53:30 PM PST
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is an experienced leader. That's the message she's been attempting to drive home to voters since announcing her bid for the presidency nearly one year ago. But now Clinton, who lost the Iowa caucus to not one but two Democratic rivals, stands on the verge of another potential upset in New Hampshire.

Campaigning Monday before the first-in-the-nation primary, the former first lady got emotional and had tears in her eyes as she spoke with voters about how hard it is to balance a busy campaign life, and her passion for the country's future.

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

With her voice breaking and tears in her eyes, Clinton continued, "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."

Just hours after the moment that dominated campaign coverage not long before voters go to the polls in the first state since Iowa vaulted Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., with a first place finish, Clinton sat down with Diane Sawyer to discuss the state of her campaign.

Sawyer began the interview by asking, "Senator, everyone is talking about the coffee shop where you welled up with emotion. What was that about?"

Clinton said it wasn't an unusual moment, insisting, "I care about what is going on in peoples lives. That's how I got involved in this kind of work. That's what I think a president should be concerned about. And there's a lot of concern and worry and just people hoping and praying that their problems are gonna be solved."

Sawyer also addressed gender issues with Clinton, asking whether it's different when a woman -- particularly a presidential candidate or president -- shows that kind of emotion.

"Well, men do it all the time," Clinton told Sawyer, "and we've had that going back at least since Ronald Reagan, I guess, and certainly since then."

The two-term senator acknowledged she's in unfamiliar territory -- for the nation and as a candidate.

"Look, I'm charting new ground -- I know that and you know it's a little bit of a challenge which I fully accept and I'm ready to meet."

Clinton, who took few questions from reporters in Iowa and little more from voters, has changed strategy in New Hampshire, emphasizing a softer side to a person well known to much of the American public.

"I think that Americans know that the people who are running for president are going to put forward who they are and I'm somebody who deeply cares about what's going on and I am incredibly passionate about what we need to do in our country," Clinton told Sawyer on location for "Good Morning America."

"Now as a woman," she continued, "I know I've got to be always presenting a sort of organized front. And nobody's ever said that isn't one of my strong suits. I'm also a person, to some people's surprise. And what gets me up in the morning is not the next speech I'm going to make, and not the interview I'm going to do, it's whether I'm going to be helping somebody and whether I'm going to solve a problem for somebody.

Clinton, who routinely touts 35 years in the public arena, expressed little surprise at the reaction to "the moment."

"Oh, Diane, I don't know why. I feel like if I breathe deeply it's going to be a lead story and that's just something that goes with the territory."

Criticism from rivals also goes with the turf.

In the wake of this morning's event, former Senator John Edwards jumped on the chance to express his readiness to face the strenuous demands of the presidency.

"What I know is I'm prepared for that and I'm in this fight for the middle class and the future of this country for the long haul, through the conventions, straight to the White House," Edwards told reporters.

However, in an interview Monday with ABC News' David Muir, Elizabeth Edwards offered more compassion than her husband, noting that everyone on the campaign trail can relate to how grueling the task can be.

At another campaign stop later in the day, Edwards appeared to adopt his wife's more sympathetic tone.

"These campaigns are very grueling," he said, "they're tough and difficult affairs, running for president is a tough process."

During a campaign stop at Jake's Coffee in New London, New Hampshire, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was also asked to comment about Clinton's teary moment.

"I didn't see what happened," he said, but added, "I know this process is a grind. So that's not something I care to comment on."

When asked about Edwards' response by Sawyer, Clinton replied, "I don't think anybody doubts my toughness. That's never been one of the criticisms leveled at me."

Clinton also took the opportunity to fire back at her rivals for the Democratic nomination.

"They can say whatever they want to say, they will anyway but you know they've both been given a free ride this campaign. And if that's what Democrats want to see continue, well then that's the choice of the voters in this election, but I think I'm the best prepared to be the president and commander in chief and I think I'm the best candidate to actually win for the Democrats."

ABC News' Kate Snow, Eloise Harper, David Muir, and Raelyn Johnson contributed to this report.