PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton exhaustively answered hours of questions from New Hampshire voters yesterday, displaying a cool mastery of topics from health care to global warming as she made a final pitch for her candidacy.
But one query broke through her defenses. For a moment, the woman teetering on the cusp of a second consecutive defeat in the race for the Democratic nomination revealed an emotional side rarely seen in public.
"My question is very personal," said Marianne Pernold, 64, a freelance photographer attending a Clinton breakfast for undecided voters at a coffee shop in Portsmouth. "How do you do it? How do you keep upbeat?"
"It's not easy," the New York senator replied, her voice cracking and her eyes welling with tears. "You know, I've had so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backward."
"Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong," she said, a clear reference to her surging rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. "Some of us are ready, and some of us are not. ... So, as tired as I am - and I am - I just believe so strongly in who we are as a nation."
On the day before a critical vote that could determine her future, Clinton used a variety of strategies - some soft and others hard - in an attempt to repel the challenge posed by Obama.
Recent polls give Obama a double-digit advantage here. If Democrats in New Hampshire cast their ballots decisively for the Illinois senator, it could be a fatal blow for the Clinton candidacy.
Clinton displayed her policy acumen yesterday, discussing substantive issues with voters and winning some converts.
"I was on the fence. Last night, I liked Obama," said Jane Harrington, 52, who sat next to Clinton throughout the hourlong breakfast session. But Clinton swayed her.
"I think I'm going to put a Hillary bumper sticker on my car."
Clinton continued her criticisms of Obama's voting and legislative record, saying it shows he can't produce the change he promises. And the exhaustion of weeks of nonstop campaign produced an unplanned message: that of a bone-tired candidate who might be worn down from sinking poll numbers and the implosion of her seeming inevitability.
Asked yesterday whether her campaign was in panic mode, Clinton said, "I'm not."
"You know, I have been through a lot of campaigns, so maybe that's why I just see this from the longer-term perspective," she said on CBS. "You know, you go up and you go down."
Obama also toured New Hampshire yesterday, continuing to draw enthusiastic crowds as his campaign continued to benefit from last week's win in the Iowa caucuses.
The messages of the two top Democrats have devolved into one word apiece. For Obama, it is change. For Clinton, it has been ready.
To demonstrate her readiness to be president, Clinton has spent her time since the Iowa caucuses at forums and rallies answering questions from voters. Many appreciate the attention, but the strategy has been time-consuming and, at times, academic.
"She did kind of ramble. I wish there was a little more back-and-forth," said Peter Roberts, a self-employed investment manager from Stratham who attended the breakfast session.
Roberts said he remained undecided after Clinton spent more than an hour addressing a table of about a dozen voters who had yet to make up their minds.
At a rally in Dover, Clinton spent another hour fielding questions from a crowd of 600 on topics that included the political situation in Bolivia, hardly a front-burner concern in the presidential race.
Clinton quickly recovered from the emotional episode earlier in the day, but it underscored how emotions can be tricky on the campaign trail.
Edmund S. Muskie's 1972 presidential bid ended when journalists reported that he cried while defending criticism of his wife during a New Hampshire speech. Muskie said that what journalists called tears were melted snowflakes, but his candidacy was done.
Four years ago, Howard Dean's guttural scream after the Iowa caucuses was interpreted by many as instability. He was defeated for the nomination.
But Michael S. Dukakis was criticized for not showing enough emotion when he was asked during a 1988 debate whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife were raped.
Democratic contender John Edwards at first criticized Clinton's show of emotion yesterday, telling reporters that "what we need in a commander in chief is strength and resolve," and that being president is "tough business."
He later softened his remarks, saying that campaigns are "very grueling."
Obama said he didn't see what happened. "I know this process is a grind," he said, "so that's not something I care to comment on."
Clinton continued yesterday to spotlight Obama's record, arguing that it undermines his claim to be an agent of change.
"When you ask what legislative accomplishments you look to, and you say preventing members of Congress from having lunch with lobbyists, except they can still do [it] standing up, that is not change," Clinton told the Dover audience. "When you condemn the oil companies for all of the giveaways that the tax system gives them because of their powerful hold on so many in Washington, and then you vote for Dick Cheney's energy bill, that is not change."
One group that Clinton must sway to win here are independent voters, who make up more than 40 percent of the electorate and who can vote in either party's primary. A surge of independents for Obama would spell certain defeat for her.
Ellie Sexton, 60, an electronics company administrator from Durham who supports Clinton, fears that is what will happen today. But the driving force, she said, will be the state Republican Party, which views Obama as an easier foe in the general election.
"I think there's a manipulation of the system in New Hampshire," she said. "I've heard it. I feel it. ... It breaks my heart."
What today's vote means
For Republicans: Balloting in a state known for independent-minded voters could complete the resurrection of John McCain's bid for the nomination and severely cripple his chief rival, Mitt Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts.
For Democrats: With Barack Obama surging in the latest polls, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are trying to survive for a one-on-one contest with the Illinois senator.