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By BETH FOUHY
Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton faced questions Saturday from New Hampshire voters skeptical about her stand on the Iraq war, including one who demanded that she repudiate her 2002 Senate vote to send U.S. troops into battle.
In her first presidential campaign visit to the early voting state, Clinton focused on her plans to revive struggling small-town economies, provide universal health care and make college more affordable. But at a town hall meeting in rural Berlin and at a boisterous gathering of some 3,000 people in the state capital, Concord, Clinton was peppered with questions about Iraq.
Most of the questions were cordial, and Clinton was loudly cheered when she repeated her pledge to end the war if she is elected president next year. But several attendees challenged the New York senator to explain how she could reconcile her sharp criticism of the war with her vote to authorize the original invasion.
“Aren’t you trying to have it both ways?” asked a man in Concord.
Clinton acknowledged “a great deal of frustration and anger and outrage” over the war, and said she was working hard in the Senate to pass legislation capping troop levels in Iraq. She also vowed to try to bring to a vote a resolution disapproving of President Bush’s planned troop increase.
“I’m still in the arena,” she said Ã¢â‚¬â€ an apparent riposte to a Democratic rival, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Like Clinton, Edwards voted to authorize the invasion, but he has become a staunch war critic since leaving the Senate in 2004.
“It’s very easy to go around and say, ‘Let’s end the war,'” Clinton added. “If we had a Democratic president we would end the war.”
Her toughest question came in Berlin, a struggling mill town in northern New Hampshire.
Roger Tilton, 46, a financial adviser from Nashua, N.H., told Clinton that unless she recanted her vote, he was not in the mood to listen to her other policy ideas.
“I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all and without nuance, you can say that war authorization was a mistake,” Tilton said. “I, and I think a lot of other primary voters Ã¢â‚¬â€ until we hear you say it, we’re not going to hear all the other great things you are saying.”
In response, Clinton repeated her assertion that “knowing what we know now, I would never have voted for it,” and said voters would have to decide for themselves whether her position was acceptable.
“The mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress,” Clinton said to loud applause.
Later, Tilton said he was not satisfied with her answer and was inclined to support either Edwards or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who announced his candidacy Saturday.
“I love what she says about health care, I love what she says about capping troop levels, I love what she says about the war now,” Tilton said, adding he would remain undecided until she offered a clearer answer.
Clinton’s refusal to recant her vote has been a sore point for many Democratic activists who tend to vote heavily in the party’s primaries.
Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, has said his vote was wrong. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 but has opposed the war from the outset.
For the most part, Clinton was received warmly at both New Hampshire gatherings. People cheered her loudly, with intermittent shouts of “We love you, Hillary!” and “You go, girl!”
In Berlin, retired firefighter Henry Boucher said Clinton had won his vote.
“I never thought I’d vote for a woman, but this one here I’m going to support,” Boucher, 65, said.
On Sunday, Clinton planned to attend house parties in Manchester and Nashua before a town hall meeting in Keene.
It was Clinton’s first visit to New Hampshire since 1996, when as first lady she campaigned for the re-election of her husband.
New Hampshire was widely credited with reviving Bill Clinton’s presidential prospects in 1992. He placed second in the state’s primary amid a torrent of allegations about marital infidelity and questions about whether he had avoided military service in Vietnam.
He labeled himself “the comeback kid” after that primary, and went on to win the Democratic nomination and the general election.
Hillary Clinton reminisced about the warm welcome New Hampshire voters had given the Clintons in 1992, and said her husband envied her weekend visit to the state.
“The only thing I will try to do differently from my husband is not to make so many Dunkin’ Donuts stops,” she said to laughter. “Bill gained about 20 pounds in the New Hampshire primary and I cannot afford that.”
She called her husband a “full-time political counselor” but nodded as Evelyn Owen, 69, of Salem, N.H., described waiting 12 hours for Bill Clinton to autograph a copy of his memoir.
“I’ve waited for him a lot myself,” the senator cracked.
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