CLINTON, Iowa (AP) — For Iowa Democrat Leslie McCreery, the memories of Hillary Clinton's stunning loss in her state eight years ago are still fresh.
McCreery was there the night of the 2008 caucuses, trying to recruit voters to Clinton's side, only to watch her neighbors back Barack Obama and help carry him to an upset victory. Now, as she prepares to again head Clinton's efforts at her caucus site Monday night, MCreery can't fathom why her candidate's lead again feels in peril.
"It doesn't make sense to me," said McCreery, a 70-year-old retiree from the aptly-named town of Clinton.
McCreery is part of a legion of women — many middle-aged or older — who make up Clinton's most loyal and enthusiastic band of followers. While they're unwavering in their support for the former secretary of state, some are grappling with a combination of confusion and anxiety that another race in Iowa could be slipping away.
"It's just a weird year," said Beverly Williams, a 55-year-old who works at a corn processing plant.
This time around, the unexpected challenge to Clinton comes from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who has energized young voters and liberals with his calls for a "political revolution" that would include free college tuition and breaking up big Wall Street banks. In the closing days before Monday's caucuses, Sanders' crowds are routinely doubling or tripling Clinton's, particularly in college towns.
Her campaign has tried to infuse her events with youthful enthusiasm, too, typically tapping a young volunteer to speak to the crowd about why he or she is supporting Clinton's candidacy. But the real energy comes from women who are closer to the candidate in age.
They join in chants while waiting in the cold and snow to go through security checks: "It's time, it's time, it's time for a woman in the White House!" ''I believe that she will win! I believe that she will win!"
They burst into applause when a biographical video shows Clinton's 1995 speech in Beijing when she declared, "Women's rights are human rights." And they nod approvingly throughout her remarks as she ticks through economic and foreign policy proposals.
"It's been Hillary all the way," said Mary Charipar, a 63-year-old retired math teacher from Cedar Rapids. "I feel like my future and the future of my children and other people's children, only her hands are going to be able to take care of it."
To be sure, they do hear the complaints about Clinton: that she appears aloof and inaccessible, that she and her husband don't feel bound by some rules — witness the private email controversy — that she's reluctant to tell the full story about some events.
Supporters suggest such criticism is mainly the carping of political foes. However, it is also sometimes heard from Democrats, though they say they still intend to vote for her.
"She's been with us for years and years and years and she's taken her lumps," said Patricia Hanick, 68. "She's been brilliant and she's been accused of a lot of untrustworthy behavior."
Hanick caucused for Obama in 2008 and says she understands why it's Sanders who appears to have momentum as the caucuses draw near. "When the race gets tight, it's a little more exciting to go with the underdog," she said.
Still, Hanick said she learned from her experience backing Obama that inspirational candidates can have their limits. "Inspiration makes you get out and vote, but it doesn't get the job done in the same way that the experience that she brings gets it done," she said.
Women made up 57 percent of caucus goers in the 2008 Democratic contest in Iowa, according to polls of those who participated. Obama won 35 percent of their votes, to Clinton's 30 percent, setting him on the path to the Democratic nomination.
If Sanders is able to replicate other pieces of Obama's Iowa coalition, including young people and first-time caucus goers, Clinton will likely need more women in her corner. The latest Des Moines Register poll showed Clinton leading Sanders among women 49 percent to 32 percent.
Heather Gross, 44, was among those who backed Clinton in 2008. As she prepares to caucus for Clinton once again, she says she sees a more confident candidate.
"She's coming across stronger," said Gross, who attended a Clinton event Monday in her hometown of Oskaloosa, along with her daughter who is volunteering for the campaign. "She just appears to be really comfortable in her skin and appears to know what she wants to do when she becomes president."
Asked whether she worries Clinton could be headed for a repeat of 2008, Gross shook her head emphatically. "She's got this," she said.
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