Hillary Clinton's surprise comeback in the presidential race this week sparked national soul-searching. Did women rally out of guilt? Or did a glimpse of tears win the senator a bit of sympathy?

While pundits have weighed in on what happened in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary to push Clinton to victory over rival Barack Obama, interviews with female voters across the country turned up a common theme -- the former first lady's tearful moment on the campaign trail had touched a nerve.

It doesn't hurt her to show some humanity, said retired nursing teacher Madelyn Levy, 61, as she sipped coffee in Cincinnati. My heart went out to her. She's human.

It's because she cried, and women felt sympathetic, said Kate O'Grady, 35, an accountant, in the same coffee shop.

Clinton's emotional response to a question from a New Hampshire voter on Monday was dissected from the first. The New York senator, who would be the first woman U.S. president, teared up when asked how she kept going on the campaign trail.

Was the emotion genuine or a calculated attempt to show a softer side? Did it show weakness? Had Clinton's unexpected loss in the Iowa caucuses broken her resolve?

A day later, Clinton won a narrow victory in New Hampshire's Democratic primary over Obama, the Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president. Polls had predicted Obama would win, building on his first-place victory in the January 3 Iowa nominating contest.

The victory evened up the Democratic race as candidates head into more state-by-state contests to choose the party's nominee for the November presidential election. The Republican race is wide open as well.


While accountant O'Grady thinks Clinton's tears were fake, she said the Iowa disappointment and the glee with which critics pounced on Clinton's loss probably made women rally to her defense. People felt guilty, and said 'We need to save the ship,' said O'Grady, an independent voter.

Claudia Brown, a retired teacher in Missouri, said Clinton's emotional display made her more appealing.

There have been a number of things that have prevented me from really being on her bandwagon, and not without guilt ... There wasn't any passion in her voice. It seemed too measured, too calculated, said Brown, 60. I think ... what New Hampshire did is re-establish that connection.

The candidate herself said plenty of male presidents have shown feelings, but it was more of a risk for a woman.

Obviously, we know what people will say, but maybe I have liberated us to actually let women be human beings in public life, Clinton said in an interview with Fox News.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, wasn't sure Clinton's comeback was due entirely to one emotional moment, but said support from women voters was critical.


I think there is a great emotional connection between women and Hillary. And whether it was that one moment or whether it was other things I can't say, but I do believe that happened, Feinstein said in a telephone news conference.

While Obama won greater support from female voters in Iowa, female support in New Hampshire put Clinton over the top. Women made up 57 percent of the electorate, and Clinton won them by a 12 percentage point margin, according to Emily's List, which helps Democratic women candidates who back abortion rights.

A strong get-out-the-vote effort by the group, which has endorsed Clinton, may have had as much to do with her victory as Clinton's emotional moment.

But Susan Stevens, 48, an undecided Democrat in Heartland, Wisconsin, said Clinton's soft side helped.

I think she showed some personal feeling and I think that's what people wanted to see, Stevens said. That's why she lost in Iowa -- people didn't have a good feel of who she was, (but) she humanized herself in New Hampshire.

Still, the emotion didn't impress everyone.

I think the whole tears thing kind of diminished her strength a little bit. They've been saying all along that people don't really trust in her, and that just seemed disingenuous, said Anya Sutton, 42, a risk manager for a commodities brokerage in Kansas City, Missouri.

In Atlanta, Republican Jacqueline Cote, 66, said the tears may have won over some, but she's unswayed:

Lots of women will vote for her, but I don't trust her.

(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Andrew Stern and Mike Conlon in Chicago and Matthew Bigg in Atlanta; editing by Mohammad Zargham)