DES MOINES, Iowa Hillary Clinton is used to tough questions, but a recent query from a little girl actually moved her.
Before about 700 people at Keota High School last month, the grade-schooler clutched the microphone during a town hall meeting and asked: “What are you going to do about all this bullying?”
Encouraged by Clinton, the girl went on to say: “I have asthma and occasionally I’ve heard people talking behind my back about not wanting to be near me because I have asthma. I mean, people, it’s not contagious.”
Clinton opened her arms for a hug, before telling the crowd that it was “important to stand up to bullies wherever they are.”
In the long slog of campaigning, with multiple events and the same speeches and questions again and again, it was a memorable moment. Indeed, for Clinton, some of her standout points in the campaign have been when she gets personal with children who are prepared to speak up about everything from bullying to pet preferences.
Critics question if such moments are staged, thus inauthentic. Clinton’s team says no. Encounters with children allow her to get to a “deeper place” than potential voters may otherwise see, says spokesman Nick Merrill. Clinton’s campaign events are typically professional and disciplined, though she often speaks about her baby granddaughter.
At a recent Cedar Rapids event, a serious economic question came from a girl who asked: “Will more jobs in sports be open to women and will they get equal pay?”
Clinton, an advocate for equal pay, said: “I hope so. I really do hope so.”
And then a light moment, when a child asked: “Do you have a dog or cat?”
“We now have two dogs. One is a labradoodle and one is a toy poodle,” Clinton said. “We love labs so maybe we’ll get another lab.”
Democratic pollster Peter Hart said recent focus groups he did of Ohio voters for the Annenberg Center for Public Policy showed that many struggled to make an emotional connection with Clinton, though all thought she’d be qualified for the presidency.
“They have no doubts about Hillary’s backbone. They have questions about her heart,” he said.
But he watched the moment when Clinton talked to the girl about bullying. “What made it so marvelous,” he said, is that “she didn’t answer with a program. She had the sensitivity to turn and say tell me about you.... It felt genuine.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who backs Clinton, says that when talking to children: “You can’t give a five-point plan, you can’t be wonky, you can’t explain the ins and outs of public options. You’re forced to reply more from the heart than the head. I think when Hillary talks from the heart, she’s enormously effective.”