WASHINGTON — It was such a girlie question, Marianne Pernold Young wasn't sure she should ask it.
There she was, within touching distance of a very smart Hillary Rodham Clinton at a little New Hampshire coffee shop where a handful of other very smart women had spent an hour asking very smart questions about immigration and national security -- and the only thing she could think to ask, the only thing she really wanted to know: How do you do it?
The microphone came her way once, and Pernold Young handed it off. Too bush league, she thought. But then something inside the 64-year-old freelance photographer and three-year breast cancer survivor said "what the heck."
Truth be told, all the policy talk was getting boring. So when the mike came around one last time, she asked the question that helped to steady the listing campaign of the first woman with a real shot at the White House:
"As a woman, I know it's hard to get out of the house and get ready. My question is very personal. How do you do it?"
For all the grilling by the hard-bitten news media, Clinton's response to that one girlie question was what the Clinton high command would later call a eureka moment, eliciting a spark of humanity from the famously self-controlled senator from New York. It was just one of several factors that led to her close victory, but it has already entered the realm of political legend.
For the first time that morning, Clinton struggled for words.
Pernold Young jumped to her rescue, the way a girlfriend might: "Who does your hair?" It was such a uniquely female thing to wonder -- how many male voters would even care?
"Luckily, on special days I do have help," Clinton allowed. "If you see me every day and if you look on some of the websites and listen to some of the commentators, they always find me on the day I didn't have help."
There wasn't a woman in the place who didn't relate to that -- the former first lady has bad hair days, too! But this line of inquiry seemed to touch something in Clinton.
"It's not easy, it's not easy," she went on. "And I couldn't do it if I just didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do."
She paused, collecting her thoughts.
"You know, I have so many opportunities from this country, and I just don't want to see us fall backwards," she said softly, her eyes glistening, her voice starting to break.
"Some people think elections are a game, they think it's like 'who's up' or 'who's down,' " she continued. "It's about our country, it's about our kids' futures, it's really about all of us, together."
Clearly, it was no longer about her hair.
The next day -- Tuesday, primary day -- polls showed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, with a double-digit lead. As New Hampshire voters went to the polls, Clinton's campaign braced for a defeat that never came.
"It's amazing how one compassionate sentence could cause such a ripple. It's just mind-boggling," Pernold Young said Wednesday from her home in Portsmouth, N.H., where her husband answered the phone, fatigued. The media calls had started at 5 a.m., and the local radio station predicted that she would become one of the most famous voters in the state's history.
It began when she was invited by a friend, New Hampshire House Speaker Terie Norelli, to join about 15 other undecided female voters for what was billed as an intimate chat with Clinton, if you can call coffee under a hunched scrum of reporters and cameras "intimate."
She arrived at the Cafe Espresso in Portsmouth at 9 a.m. Monday. For more than an hour, the discussion was so wonkish that campaign reporters fiddled with their BlackBerrys and fought the urge to nod off. The "intimate chat" included such polysyllabic critiques as "I will immediately begin to reverse this sense of arrogance and unilateralism and preemption that the Bush administration has propagated."
Amid the rhetoric, Pernold Young came up with her question. "I wasn't going to ask it, because every time I thought of it, my heart would pound," she said. "Why would she want to deal with something like this? It's too girlie."
Then again, the girlie stuff helps to sustain Pernold Young, from her book club to morning talks over coffee to Breast Friends, her group of breast cancer survivors who created a 2007-08 pin-up calendar of themselves -- minimally clothed and artfully photographed by Pernold Young, who is Ms. April 2008. (She used a mirror to photograph herself.)
She was as shocked by Clinton's response as everyone else. Reporters spent several minutes verifying that it had actually happened. Clinton's eyes were indeed wet, weren't they? But she didn't actually cry. Had she managed to appear human without appearing frail?
Immediately, reporters wanted to know if Pernold Young was a plant. (The Clinton camp had been accused of such antics before.) She assured them all she wasn't. A typical New Hampshire voter, she has attended a number of political events -- hugging John Edwards hard enough to unnerve his security detail and getting her picture in the paper with Obama, whose oratory had brought her to tears only two days before her question did the same to Clinton.
In interviews later, Pernold Young said she admired Clinton and was delighted to have evoked a side of the candidate that could "help her with future press conferences and rallies."
But she couldn't help noticing that after the famous question was answered, Clinton "turned to the right and went right into political rhetoric again."
Which is why, the next day, Pernold Young cast her vote for Barack Obama.