A contemplative Clinton hits Iowa in final sprint to caucuses

Burlington, Iowa (CNN)Hillary Clinton, her voice softened and tone contemplative, stressed to Iowa voters in Burlington on Wednesday night that while this campaign has not been easy, she knows how to "what it is like to be knocked down but not knocked out."

The race in Iowa, which is nearing its final sprint towards the February 1 caucuses, has been tightening in the last few weeks, and the pressure is mounting on Clinton to avoid a loss in the first in the nation caucus. The pressure on her Iowa operation was ratcheted up even more on Tuesday when a CNN/WMUR New Hampshire poll found Clinton down by 27 points to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her unexpectedly stout opponent.
Clinton opened her first appearance since the poll by focusing on her own personal struggles and ability to bounce back from tough times.
"I have had a few hard times. I don't know anybody in this audience that have not had their own share," Clinton said. "It is not whether you get knocked down, it is whether you get back up. And I have gotten back up time and time and time again."
    The tone was surprising to many in the audience, including some of Clinton's aides who were taken by their candidate's candor about her personal struggles.
    "It has not all been a bed of roses. It is tough," Clinton said about the race. "The politics in our country can be pretty harsh. I think I have been called nearly everything. I understand that. It is a competitive process. I wish it wasn't so mean-spirited. I don't think this reflects well on us. But we have to keep forging our way forward and try to bring people back to together again."
    Clinton started the 2016 campaign as the prohibitive favorite to win the Democrat's nomination, someone whose ability to organize, fundraise and turnout voters all but guaranteed her the nomination.
    But spurred by anti-establishment anger and an ability to raise big money online, Sanders has risen in the polls and become someone who credibly could beat Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, something that would have been considered outrageous months ago.
    The possibility of her falling behind Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire is now raising the specter of a protracted nomination fight between the two rivals, meaning Clinton-aligned Democrats, who had long hoped their candidate could save money while Republicans spent millions bludgeoning each other with negative ads, now expect the race to bleed into the spring and possibly longer.
    While some of Clinton's aides are sensing the urgency in the final 12 days, the former secretary of state responded by thanking the voters of Iowa.
    "I just want to say thank you," Clinton said at the opening of her appearance. "You certainly have informed me, made me a better candidate, gave me a lot more to think about than I even had before I started ... I believe, thanks to you, I will be a better president."
    Clinton urged the voters in the room to "carefully who is prepared, ready, able to do that job that waits" and closed her speech by arguing that country needs "a president who can do all parts of the job."
    The former first lady contrasted herself against Sanders with her desire to build on what President Barack Obama has done, especially on health care and regulating Wall Street.
    "We have differences and it is that time in the campaign when he's making contrast and I am as well," Clinton said.
    Clinton spent barely any time on the rope line of the organizing event in Burlington, shaking a few hands when she closed the speech and then quickly exiting.
    Even still, audience members said they appreciated the seriousness she brought to the event.
    "I think she seemed serious and it is a serious job she is looking at," Kelly Samberg, a 56-year-old nurse from Burlington who plans to caucus for Clinton. "It is not all fun and games."
    Dan Reeder, a professor from Oklahoma who drove 8 hours to catch Clinton's event, said he, too, was struck by her tone.
    "I am leaving here even more of a supportive than I was before," said Reeder. "My initial thoughts were she is really taking this seriously."