Clinton sets first two visits to N.H.

CONCORD -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is receiving and accepting invitations her husband didn't earn until after he won the White House.

Clinton, the front-runner for her party's presidential nomination, will headline the state Democrats' biggest event of the year, the 100 Club Dinner on March 10. Before that, the New York senator plans a Feb. 3 and 4 trip to the first-in-the-nation primary state, which she hasn't visited since Bill Clinton was running for re-election in 1996.

Clinton returns to New Hampshire with clear advantages over her husband. She has the national profile, a who's-who campaign team and first-name relationship with voters. She also has a year until the first votes are cast for Democrats to pick their nominee.

Bill Clinton didn't formally enter the race until October 1991, just months before voters gave him a No. 2 finish in the primary and the ability to brand himself as "the comeback kid." Clinton didn't headline the state's 100 Club dinner -- former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter spoke that year to 125 people, the smallest crowd in a decade -- and didn't get the invite until after he won the White House.

Hillary Clinton joined the crowded Democratic field this weekend and told supporters in New York on Sunday: "I'm in, I'm in it to win and that's what I intend to do."

But to win, she's likely to need voters in New Hampshire, a state she last visited as first lady a decade ago.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan said the priority was to get a top-tier figure to headline the biggest fundraiser of the year, which originated with a 1959 rally for John F. Kennedy. Hillary Clinton was the only candidate to get the invitation.

"We originally extended an invitation to Sen. Clinton some time ago, but because she was in that deciding process, we were unable to confirm," said Sullivan, whose role as state chairwoman requires her to stay neutral among Democrats.

"We try to provide a level playing field for all candidates," she said.

State Democrats, however, had a rock star-style rally for Sen. Barack Obama in December and have worked with all campaigns to schedule other events.

New Hampshire Democrats announced Clinton's visit Tuesday after months of negotiations about the date. Clinton said repeatedly she would not be forced into the race, but the flurry of activity about other candidates and an April presidential debate in Manchester is expected to force the fence-sitting candidates to make a decision.

Clinton plans to visit Iowa, home of the first caucuses, this weekend and is soon expected to visit South Carolina, another early voting state. A top Clinton aide said the second-term senator would visit New Hampshire Feb. 3-4, but details were not set.

Clinton is the Democrats' clear front-runner, but Sen. Barack Obama, former senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have all visited the state. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd visited New Hampshire just last weekend.




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