HAMPTON, N.H. — When they heard Hillary Clinton would be here on Friday in Hampton — a small coastal town just south of the Maine border — Lenore and Gary Patton contacted the campaign. They wanted to lend a hand as volunteers.
The morning of the event — a roundtable discussion about small businesses at the locally owned Smuttynose Brewing Company — the Pattons arrived early, help set up, and secured the best spot in the house: front row, first two seats.
Lenore, 78, and Gary, 77, had a perfect view of the candidate.
Had this been a typical event, the Pattons may not have been able to attend.
Clinton aides emphasize — in every email, memo, and press release — that this campaign is about “everyday Americans.” But as a result of efforts to keep each gathering intimate — allowing Clinton to best “get the input of everyday Americans” — few Americans of that particular stripe actually end up in the room.
Clinton’s campaign functions are typically so small that there is barely an audience — just a handful of invited guests, often local Democratic officials.
Last month, before her first event in New Hampshire, a group of young supporters stood outside the venue in the rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of the candidate. Clinton never materialized. But every now and then, one could be seen at the window, face pressed to the glass, hands cupped on either side for a better view.
The roundtable in Hampton was Clinton’s largest yet. About 60 people came — including the Pattons, local activists who said they “fervently supported” Barack Obama in 2008 and now “fervently support” Clinton. The rest of the group was a mix: some invited by the campaign, some invited by the brewery, and others who’d simply asked to come. According to a Clinton aide, the campaign was able to accommodate nearly every request to attend that they had received.
For about an hour, the Pattons and the five other dozen guests watched Clinton, alongside her seven roundtable participants, discuss in granular detail the challenges facing small businesses.
And then the spell of the everyday was broken. Clinton was swarmed by reporters. From the aisle, pressed up against a wall of beer cases stacked to the ceiling on pallet shelves, they gathered in a thick circle that happened to coalesce right around the two best seats in the house. Lenore and Gary Patton could not talk to the candidate they had come to see. They could not even get out of their chairs.
Cameras flashed wildly. Lenore was crunched. Gary had a tape recorder in his right ear, a television camera in his left, and microphones just overhead. They were inches from Clinton, with her “in the eye of the hurricane,” as Gary put it after watching her field questions on Iraq, her emails, and her image. (“Do you have a perception problem?”)
“I’m gonna let the Americans decide that,” Clinton replied on her way out.
“Hey,” Gary said to no in particular. “She’s smart. She’s experienced. End of story.”
But most people had left by then. One reporter turned to the Pattons to remark on their good view. “Well, we could hardly help it,” Gary said. “We couldn’t get out.”
There was a certain disconnect the Pattons felt they had just witnessed.
“My God, end of story. Stop telling me about the tape recorders,” Gary said, referring to the media swarm. “This woman has what it takes.”
“She has ideas for the direction of the country,” said Lenore. “She cares about the middle class. We’re about as middle class as you can get.”
“She’s so experienced, she’s so bright, and she’s so adroit,” her husband added. “And I came in here not necessarily feeling all of those things, but I go away thinking that we would be lucky to have her as the president, because she has so many attributes that you need.”
“It’s an incredibly impressive performance,” he said.
Clinton announced this week that she won't hold her first rally until June 13 — one month later than originally expected. The event will kick off what aides have signaled will be a bigger, faster phase of the campaign.
On Friday afternoon, at her second event of the trip, Clinton suggested that she’d prefer to push that all back indefinitely — staving off for a little bit longer the reality that her campaign isn’t small, intimate, or everyday.
"Some people had asked me, particularly in the press, ‘When are you going to have really big events?” she told a group of supporters.
“And I said, ‘Later, later, later…’”