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How Hillary nearly pulled it off: On the road with would-be President Mrs Clinton

Ever wondered what it's like being on the road with Hillary Clinton? 5am media calls, black coffee and FaceTime with her granddaughter…
Marie Claire went on the campaign trail with Hillary to see what life looks like for the world's most powerful woman.

Words by Kim Ghattas

Hillary Clinton walks on stage in a hangar in Brooklyn decked with American flags to the sound of Sara Bareilles’ Brave. She looks out over the jubilant crowd chanting, ‘Hillary, Hillary’ and appears triumphant. There have been many similar rallies sprinkled along the long road of election season in the United States, but this time the energy is different. It’s primary results night, and she’s chosen to wear white. Clinton seems almost overwhelmed as she paces the stage for a few moments appearing to take it all in, waving to supporters and occasionally bringing her hands to her heart, causing the crowd’s chants to grow.

As a journalist who has been on the road many times with Clinton, I can see the swell of emotions on her face – a woman who is so often criticised for being cold and distant. I watch as she nervously swallows several times, closes her eyes for a second and exhales before throwing her arms up with a smile. The crowd goes wild.

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It’s been a long journey for the 68-year-old. The 2016 primary race was tougher and longer than Clinton, her aides, supporters or any of the reporters following her had expected – after all, nothing that this trailblazing woman does ever comes easy. But eight years after trying for the first time, Clinton has finally become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in a country where women hold less than one-fifth of seats in Congress. Quite a landmark.

Clinton faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from Bernie Sanders, the white-haired ‘democratic socialist’ senator, who has now pledged his support for her campaign. There were also the usual screaming headlines about her ineptitude as a candidate, her untrustworthiness and unpopularity among millennial women (not to mention an investigation into her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. She will face no charges, but the FBI scolded her for being ‘extremely careless’ in handling classified information, words that will be used often against her by her Republican rival). But she’s hoping to unify Democrats behind her, especially women, with a nod to the history she is making as a female candidate. An emotive video is beamed on to huge screens just minutes before she takes to the stage, retelling the 200-year struggle for women’s rights in the US and around the world.

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‘If America is going to lead, we have to learn from women of the world who have blazed new paths,’ she says, playing to her gender, which is in stark contrast to her 2008 run for the White House when she played down her femininity in a bid to prove her suitability as a tough commander in chief. As if to underline her embrace of her gender as a bonus, she has a carefully crafted playlist of female power ballads for her events that blares from speakers on a loop – think Katy Perry’s Roar and Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire.

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But behind the meticulously managed public appearances, Clinton occasionally allows her public façade to drop. She is visibly moved at one rally as she comforts a 10-year-old girl who says she is worried that her parents, undocumented Hispanic immigrants, will get deported. ‘Let me do the worrying,’ she reassures her.

This is a woman who is clearly in touch with her emotions and role away from the political arena. She has a habit of grabbing the rare few moments in her hectic schedule before a plane takes off or during quiet car journeys to FaceTime with Charlotte, her much-treasured 23-month-old granddaughter, bantering lightly with her or coaxing her to play with a ball or doll.

Clinton’s well of energy seems bottomless. I travelled with her around the world when she was secretary of state, through time zones and on long plane rides, and despite being half her age, I had half her energy. Our small group of reporters would be zonked out on chairs in a hotel lobby waiting for her meetings to end when she would emerge at 3am, perky and energised, and blurt out, ‘Hi, guys!’

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On the trail, she does yoga whenever possible and has a fondness for the tree and warrior poses. Fuelled by a strong black coffee in the morning, she prefers to get eight hours’ sleep, but seems to thrive on whatever is possible. As the day wears on, she keeps her energy topped up with milky tea and can do without lunch if needed. An enviable ability to nap anywhere, together with an enthusiasm for chillies and hot sauce seems to keep her refuelled throughout even the toughest of days.

For us journalists, covering a political campaign is part history in the making, part drudgery. The drives to keep up with the candidates’ events across Iowa or Nevada are endless; the hours stretching into the night with late deadlines and early starts. Dull airport hotels are a staple of life on the road, as are heavy American diner meals of burgers or tacos with barely a vegetable in sight. You’ll hear the same speech again and again about people’s ‘God-given potential’, ‘breaking down barriers’ or Clinton’s favourite and the one that must sustain her, too: ‘It’s not whether you get knocked down that matters, it’s whether you get back up.’

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When I first told Clinton I’d be following her domestic campaign on the presidential trail, starting out in Iowa, she laughed: ‘Kim! You know that’s not a foreign country.’ I often wondered whether the transition back to domestic American politics felt as foreign to her as it did to me.

Clinton is seen as a bit of a rock star around the world, welcomed with screams of, ‘We love you, Hillary,’ by crowds or, when she was secretary of state, the deference reserved for heads of state by overseas presidents and for royalty. But on the US campaign trail, I meet a new generation of young females who shrug as I ask them about her. There’s no getting away from the fact that she’s struggled to connect with millennial women who flocked to Sanders. Stung by the question at a televised debate, Clinton had the perfect repartee: ‘I have spent my entire adult life making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices, even if that choice is not to vote for me.’

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It’s frustrating for her campaign aides, particularly because the majority of the staff is made up of millennials themselves who toil in the finance department, fix computers, work long hours on the road setting up her events, and stage-craft every detail of her appearances.

Xochitl Hinojosa, 32, is a spokeswoman for the campaign and director for Coalitions Press. ‘I told my husband I wouldn’t work another campaign. It’s tough, you dedicate your whole life to it,’ she says. ‘But I said I wouldn’t do it again unless it was for Hillary Clinton because she is the best qualified candidate and has inspired me since I was a girl.’

Clinton can’t win the White House with only young voters, but she wants them on board – she hired Sanders’ female student organiser to help. The pack of journalists covering her is also dominated by women, many of whom are millennials; mothers with kids facing similar struggles to fulfil all roles. They can be seen using FaceTime to read bedtime stories from buses or finding a quiet spot before a rally to call their kids at home. Anne Gearan, who is covering the campaign for The Washington Post and is the mother of an eighth-grader [year nine], says she misses countless landmarks in her daughter’s life. ‘I do it because the work is so important and, I hope, valuable,’ she tells me. ‘Like a lot of women I’m many things – working professional, mother, wife, daughter, friend. All of those things are both responsibilities and a source of joy and pride. All must be balanced as best I can.’

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In the banquet hall at the Washington Hilton hotel a few days after Brooklyn, Clinton is dressed in pink for a Planned Parenthood event, the non-profit organisation that provides health services for women. Mothers and daughters, groups of girlfriends and a scattering of men fill the room. Clinton hits out at Republican nominee Donald Trump. A vote for him, she says, would take America back to the time ‘when abortion was illegal, women had far fewer options and life for too many women and girls was limited’. Diali Avila, a 27-year-old from Arizona and organiser for Planned Parenthood, voted for Sanders during the primary. There’s been much written about the Sanders supporters who may flock to Trump as a protest, out of anger at the Establishment. But the contrast between Trump and Clinton’s positions on women’s issues has come into stark relief. Faced with the two of them, Avila has no doubt who she will vote for. ‘We cannot afford to have Trump in the White House,’ she tells me.

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As 7 November looms closer, it is this that will be Clinton’s overriding message to young women who are not enthused by the history she is making; women who believe they are young enough to see another female presidential candidate elected in their lifetime. If Clinton fails now, that hope may be a long way off.

Kim Ghattas covers the Clinton campaign for BBC News. She is also author of The New York Times bestseller The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut To The Heart Of American Power.

Follow her at @BBCKimGhattas

‘On the road with Hillary Clinton’ was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Marie Claire UK

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