Flip-flop or not: Hillary Clinton’s 8-year political evolution

Portsmouth, New Hampshire CNN  — 

Hillary Clinton is making a double-feature debut in New Hampshire on Monday: Her new presidential campaign and her new policy positions.

As she begins the second week of her candidacy, Clinton has clarified – or cleaned up – where she stands on a few touchstone issues of the Democratic Party like gay marriage and immigration. Far more complicated is her view on trade, where she’s now taking a cautious approach on a sweeping Pacific trade agreement that she fully supported as secretary of state.

Clinton is among the ranks of Democrats whose positions have evolved over the last eight years. But because of her apolitical position at the state department, she did not have the same luxury that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had of publicly keeping in step as her party changed.

SEE: 5 ways 2008 Hillary Clinton clashed with current Dems

Yet she also faces the same set of challenges that Mitt Romney and all candidates running for president a second time encounter: A new set of rivals and being judged against positions made the first time around.

“There is a difference between flip-flopping and a transition that takes place for people,” Jim Demers, co-chairman of Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire campaign, who now supports Clinton, said of her gay marriage position.

“When you look at things, I really think that is a transformational issue that the whole country moved with. I don’t see it as flip-flopping. I see it as progress,” he said.

Clinton intends to keep the conversation focused squarely on the economy during her two-day visit to New Hampshire. She is not expected to respond to a critique from potential Democratic rivals that her new views were made just in time for her second White House bid.

Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland who is moving closer to joining the Democratic presidential race, is trumpeting Clinton’s new positions far louder than she is.

“I’m glad Secretary Clinton has come around to the right positions on these issues,” O’Malley said last week, barely masking the sarcasm in his voice. “Leadership is about making the right decision and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular.”

READ: These GOP candidates are willing to attend a gay wedding

While Clinton has been a strong supporter of gay rights, she said last year that same-sex marriage should be a state-by-state fight. Her campaign said she now believes gay marriage should be a constitutional right for everyone. She did not explain when or why her view changed, relying instead on a brief statement from her campaign to outline her new position.

In her first campaign appearances last week in Iowa, Clinton did not publicly discuss gay marriage or another new view she now holds: undocumented immigrants should be allowed to receive driver’s licenses. She also revealed that new position in a written statement, a change from her 2008 view that they should not have the right to obtain driver’s licenses.

Clinton must now decide when – or whether – she will openly discuss and elaborate on these changes or other views that have evolved since she ran for president eight years ago.

While O’Malley and other potential rivals have signaled their intention to call out Clinton on her new positions, it’s an open question whether Democratic voters will mind or find the changes refreshing.

“The world is changing and I’m glad to see she’s changing too,” said Marianne Pernold of Portsmouth, who famously asked a question during the New Hampshire primary in 2008 that caused Clinton’s eyes to well up in one of the most memorable moments of the campaign.

“She’s going with the times,” said Pernold, speaking to CNN during a Sunday afternoon interview at Café Espresso, the restaurant where Clinton gave an unusually emotional response that showed a side rarely seen during her first bid for the presidency.

New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Raymond Buckley said he didn’t believe voters would fault Clinton for changing her views on gay marriage and other issues. It would be far more surprising, he said, if her views hadn’t evolved.

“As times change, you get more information, you certainly reflect that further information,” Buckley said. “The country has indeed changed and with that, we expect our leaders to adapt as well.”

Divisions in the Democratic Party over social issues – guns, abortion, gay rights – have been nearly resolved, at least compared to the fights of a generation ago. The most pronounced fissures inside the party now involve economic issues, from Wall Street to income inequality.

“Cultural issues are just not going to divide the party anymore,” said Matt Bennett, a White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, who works at the centrist-Democratic group, Third Way. “It’s economic issues and rhetorical focus.”

Yet O’Malley made clear again in a television interview on Sunday that he intends to keep highlighting Clinton’s positions to raise questions about principles, leadership and authenticity.

“You can’t forge a new sort of consensus, you can’t forge public opinion, by following public opinion,” O’Malley said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

In her New Hampshire visit this week, Clinton is hoping to build on the reintroduction that started last week in Iowa. She has no rallies or speeches on her itinerary, but rather a series of one-on-one meetings and intimate discussions that seemed to be well received in Iowa.

Nancy Dunkel, an Iowa state representative from Dubuque County, went into a meeting with Clinton last week unsure of whether she was ready to give her full endorsement because she wanted to give all Democratic hopefuls a fair shot.

But Clinton seemed to win her over during a closed-door, 30-minute meeting at the Iowa Statehouse. Clinton took no questions as she spoke about immigration reform, education and a need to “stop the divisiveness” in Washington.

“I was on the fence, I will be honest with you,” Dunkel told CNN. “I wanted to make sure that the candidate that I am supporting is singing out of the same songbook that we are singing out of in my county.”

But after the meeting, when asked whether she endorsed Clinton’s presidential bid, Dunkel declared: “Yes, I do.”