IT WAS THE DAY That Hillary Cried.

And Philadelphia superlawyer Mark Aronchick was backstage with her and Bill and other campaign notables at the last rally in New Hampshire before yesterday's primary.

Aronchick, Clinton's finance cochair in Pennsylania - and a friend of mine - told her an anecdote he hoped would cheer her on the eve of a predicted loss.

On a trip to Africa in the fall, he and his wife, Judi, visited the tribal leader of the Mkuni village in Zambia.

"We sat in his tent and I asked if he was paying attention to American politics," Aronchick said, expecting the African leader to wax eloquent about Barack Obama.

He didn't.

"He said, 'You're running Hillary Clinton. America needs a woman. Women are healers.' "

Hillary was touched by Aronchick's story. She smiled and patted her heart with her hand in response.

And she was "buoyant and determined," Aronchick said, despite the fact that the strain of the campaign had penetrated her steely resolve earlier that day and brought her close to tears.

She wasn't crying last night.

Hillary's showing was far better than the polls predicted, and you can be sure that her emotional moment was part of the reason.

Aronchick believed the peek into her soul could only help.

I agree. For more reasons than one.

Yes, her teariness may have resolved some of the doubt Aronchick said he's heard again and again about "her heart."

People he met in Iowa and New Hampshire characterize Hillary repeatedly as "brilliant, experienced, seasoned, strong," he said.

"But then they ask: 'Can I trust her heart?' "

So, yes, the spontaneous moment "humanized" her.

Who hasn't failed? Who hasn't had setbacks along the way to a dream? Who hasn't been so exhausted and dispirited that tears came seemingly out of nowhere?

"This happens all the time," Aronchick said. "You're in a whirlwind and somebody says, 'How are you doing? How are you holding up?' "

That's what a freelance photographer asked Clinton at a campaign event in a Portsmouth coffee shop when she momentarily lost her composure.

But there's another reason the episode may have resonated with voters and helped close the expected gap between her and Obama:

This country has always liked Hillary better when she was a "victim."

Remember Monica Lewinsky?

The country rallied around Hillary when she was publically humiliated by Bill's dalliance, retreating from the constant vilification of her for everything from her hair to her health-care plan.

Some people are just more comfortable with a woman who's a victim than a victor.

But she also seems easier to identify with and more emotionally accessible when she's battered by circumstances beyond her control - in that case, a cheating husband and in the aftermath of Iowa, a capricious electorate and a cruel media.

And if I'm any example, her transformation from inevitable nominee to potential runner-up may have sparked an angry backlash in her favor.

I'd drifted first to Obama and then to John Edwards and am now firmly back in the Hillary camp.

I find myself resentful that she was swamped in Iowa by the Obama phenomenon, as if she were a deserving, hardworking woman who was overlooked when it came time for promotion.

"Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life," Gloria Steinem wrote in yesterday's New York Times, "whether the question is who could be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House."

I do know this, as yesterday's results suggest: Hillary has a superhuman capacity for recovery in situations that would put other people in the mortuary.

Several of the women, crammed into the coffee shop for one thing, changed their minds about her after the encounter there.

According to ABC News, Alison Hamilton of Portsmouth, N.H., said she, like most of the people in the group, had been considering Obama.

But after seeing Hillary become emotional, she said she was going to vote for her.

Clearly, Hamilton wasn't alone.

Hillary Clinton may no longer be inevitable, but she may prove to be invincible.

And all I can say is: You go, girl. *

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