Tuesday, January 8th 2008, 3:58 PM

'It's not easy. It's not easy. And I couldn't do it if I just didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do,' Hillary Clinton said Monday in New Hampshire. Snyder/Reuters

‘It’s not easy. It’s not easy. And I couldn’t do it if I just didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do,’ Hillary Clinton said Monday in New Hampshire.

In a stunning display of emotion during the closing hours of the New Hampshire primary race, Hillary Clinton choked back tears while answering a 64-year-old woman’s question about how she holds it all together.

Clinton, panned by critics as cold and staring down her second consecutive defeat to Barack Obama, appeared overwhelmed by the innocuous query from Marianne Pernold-Young.

She blinked repeatedly as her eyes filled.

Cradling a mike, she delivered a heartfelt soliloquy.

Her voice caught and fluttered.

“It’s not easy. It’s not easy. And I couldn’t do it if I just didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do,” she said.

“I have so many opportunities from this country, I …” she said, her failing voice forcing her to stop.

Clinton’s moist-eyed moment came just hours before New Hampshire voters headed to the polls – with her once-vaunted campaign juggernaut trailing badly to Obama in the polls and facing new questions about her presidential viability.

The former front-runner was overcome by Pernold-Young’s “very personal” question: “How do you do it?”

The question from a contemporary caught the tired former front-runner off guard. She paused. The emotion gathered on her face as she worked up an answer.

A round of supportive applause from the group, consisting mostly of women, seemed to give her strength.

“This is very personal for me. It’s not just political. It’s not just … I see what’s happening and we have to reverse it,” she said, her voice cracking. “Some people think elections are a game. They think it’s like who’s up, who’s down. It’s about our country. It’s about our kids’ futures. And it’s really about all of us together.”

Barely able to compose herself, she labored on: “You know, some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds.

“And we do it – each one of us – because we care about our country,” she said.

The reaction stunned her audience – and won them over.

Pernold-Young was bowled over, as was Jane Harrington, 52, who sat next to Clinton.

“If she came in here harsh and attacking Obama, I would have said Obama was the one,” Harrington said. “The emotion affected me, but it’s not just emotion, it’s how you do it … I wanna see someone who can actually can get things done.”

Monday’s moment of emotion, attention-grabbing given her typically scripted appearances, was treated warily by her rivals.

“What we need in a commander in chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are a tough business,” John Edwards said after hearing about her display of emotion – but without having seen footage of the event.

But after viewing her performance, Edwards said: “These campaigns are grueling and tough, difficult affairs.

“I’m going to stay focused on what I’m doing.”

Obama said he didn’t see what happened with Clinton or know the context.

But he acknowledged, “This process is a grind.”

An increasingly confident Obama crisscrossed the state yesterday whipping up supporters.

“We are happy warriors for change. We are cheerful about the prospects of taking over,” Obama declared. “The American people taking over their government, what a radical proposition.”

The Clinton camp recognized that it can’t close the charisma gap with her archrival.

Former President Bill Clinton, joking ruefully with a Granite State audience Sunday night, said: “What’s Hillary to do? I can’t make her younger, taller, male – there’s a lot of things I can’t do. But if you want a President and you need one, she would be by far the best.”

Exhausting day on the stump

Was Hillary Clinton’s moist-eyed moment a meltdown? A sign of weakness? Bad politics?

Here’s the take from five female Hillary-watching veterans:

  • Dr. Christine Whelan, author, “Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women”:

    “One typical female reaction to exhaustion is tears, while a typical male reaction to exhaustion is anger … As a woman voter, I don’t think more or less of her for this emotional show.”

  • Marie Brenner, Vanity Fair writer:

    “It might help soften her among the women who recoil from her coldness and scripted quality. To me, that moment did not seem scripted.”

  • Michelle Bernard, president of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum:

    “I think the tears are real. I think she’s exhausted and astounded that just a few months’ conventional wisdom said that she was just going to ascend to the throne.”

  • Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation, has been supporting John Edwards:

    “When men cry, it shows that they have feelings and that they’re human. When women cry it’s taken to show that they’re weak or hormonal and they shouldn’t have their finger on the nuclear button. That’s garbage.”

  • Susan Morrison, editor of the forthcoming anthology “Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers”:

    “Her tone reminded me of a mom who has been driving a car pool and running around all day but feels that everyone takes her for granted … I don’t think this blip is going to damage her further – even if it was … calculating.”

    Sherryl Connelly