WASHINGTON -- State Rep. James Splaine is a prominent New Hampshire Democrat who has been backing Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. So it shocked his fellow Democrats when the pol slammed her campaign for having "no clear message."
Splaine, who authored the state law that locked in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status, is a veteran party strategist who knows the state's politics better than anyone. He has been involved in every state primary contest since he distributed campaign literature as a kid for John F. Kennedy. But he's been troubled about the Clinton campaign for many weeks and recently went public with his complaints.
"I am concerned that her campaign still has continued to emphasize 'experience' rather than 'ideas,' and the 'past' rather than the 'future.' And her advertising in my judgment is crammed full of rhetoric, with no clear message other than this stuff about a president needing to be ready to 'lead from day one.' What's that mean? She can do better," he said in his blog on the popular Democratic Web site Blue Hampshire.
"I just think something's wrong with her campaign right now," he said, adding that she "could lose this one" if she doesn't change her message and strategy.
While polls were showing that Democratic support has eroded for the New York senator, Splaine was more troubled by Clinton's campaign posture, the way she talked to voters and the absence of bread-and-butter issues and ideas in her stump speeches.
"Where has the 'conversation' gone that she said she wanted to start with her announcement last January? It seems as if she is talking 'to' or 'at' us, even 'down' to us," he said.
"Where are her courageous stands? It seems as if so many of her 'positions' are indeed that -- positions that are the result of focus groups and consultant message massaging that simply makes it difficult to figure out exactly what she will do about Iraq, corporate corruption, campaign-finance reform and even health care."
Splaine's slam was the buzz of the party's rank-and-file, and Democrats there tell me it's still having a rippling effect -- as her chief rival, Barack Obama, inches closer to her in the polls; in some cases, moving up to a statistical tie.
"Jim Splaine is a very thoughtful guy," said Jim Demers, another veteran state Democratic leader who backs Obama. "For him to publicly express his frustration with Hillary Clinton's campaign, of which he is a supporter, is an indication of his concern that many of her supporters have here.
"I've heard from people concerned about the kind of campaign being waged by Clinton. They want to know how you stand on the issues, but they don't want you to constantly attack your opponent, and they despise candidates who do that in a ridiculing way," Demers told me.
"I'm pleased with where we're at. Everybody always expected this to be a close race," said former Democratic state chair Kathy Sullivan, co-chair of the Clinton campaign.
But the problems that so concern Jim Splaine seem to be popping up elsewhere, though manifesting themselves in different ways.
A bipartisan George Washington University battleground 2008 poll released last week, conducted in part by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, found that all the Democratic presidential candidates had at least a plurality of voters with a favorable image of them -- except Clinton. Her unfavorables topped 50 percent.
At a campaign stop at the Antique Car Museum in Coralville, Iowa, a teen stood up among 500 people to ask Clinton how she could win the election since "a lot of people for some reason just don't like you." He added, "Without saying they should get to know you, because I think they know you."
"No they don't (know me), but that's OK; they don't want to know me," she answered defensively.
Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz, writing from the campaign trial, says her slippage in Iowa and now New Hampshire "can be summed up with the words 'trust' and 'warmth.' Democratic voters see Clinton as intelligent, strong, experienced. What they don't see is a candidate they always like or trust."
Thus, she is struggling in the early primary contests to soften her image, cutting new ads that feature her mother and daughter. But the signs keep coming that the erosion is spreading.
Two months ago, she held a 25-point lead over Obama in the California Field Poll, but last week that number narrowed significantly -- dropping to 14 percent.
"Many voters in California were kind of reflexively behind Clinton," said poll director Mark DiCamillo. "Now they're not as sure."