PARK RIDGE, Illinois (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton is about to face voters for the first time in the town where she grew up, but the winter air in this Chicago suburb is hardly crackling with excitement.
“She’s been gone a long time,” remarked one businessman a week before Tuesday’s Illinois presidential primary.
Gone more than 40 years, unlike top rival Barack Obama, Hawaii-born but sent to the Senate by Illinois voters less than four years ago.
In fact, state Democratic lawmakers moved up Illinois’ primary -- one of more than two dozen “Super Tuesday” contests across the country -- to try to give Obama an early boost.
That doesn’t faze Nancy Frugoli at June Moon antiques on Vine Avenue, who quickly whips out a red, white and blue Hillary baseball cap.
“I think she’s like Martha Stewart. Many people resent her because she’s powerful ... but they can’t find anything really wrong with her. I just put one of her (high school) yearbooks on (auction Web site) eBay, the junior year, and she was such a normal-looking, pretty girl, dressed well.”
“I just feel she would be a good manager of a corporation,” added Frugoli, whose shop is across from City Hall, where the mayor has already said he intends to take a Republican ballot in the primary, hometown history or not.
In fact, the Republican inclinations of Park Ridge’s 37,775 residents may in part explain why Hillary doesn’t fire much local enthusiasm.
“I agree with the people who say that she has been gone too long to make a difference in the way I vote,” said Harriet Kondziolka, who raised two daughters in the town.
“Having a ‘celebrity’ from our area is sort of fun, but I would not choose a Democratic ballot in the primary simply because of that fact,” she added.
The former Hillary Rodham was born in Chicago in 1947 and raised in Park Ridge through her high school gradation in 1965, before going off to Wellesley College and then Yale Law School, where she met future husband Bill Clinton.
But Park Ridge, where the median income is more than $73,000, has never embraced Hillary in much of a public way.
There is a “Hillary Burger” (with olives) at the Pickwick Restaurant and her picture hangs prominently in the two local high schools, Maine East and Maine South, both of which she attended.
“I’d bet some new voters might want to be able to say ‘The first woman president graduated from my high school,’” said Marcia Morman, another long-time resident.
But there are no signs at the edge of town proclaiming the place as her childhood home. Nor have the lawns sprouted campaign signs for any office higher than a few judgeships.
Dave Sullivan, a Republican former state senator from Park Ridge, says the town is not as staunchly Republican as it was when Clinton lived here, growing up Republican and even volunteering for Republican Barry Goldwater during his 1964 presidential bid.
“I don’t know that Republicans will vote for Senator Clinton” just because of her roots, he said, “but some independents will give her an extra look.”
But he said Obama may also attract them.
Sullivan’s successor in the state senate, Democrat Dan Kotowski, says Park Ridge today is 20 percent Republican, 20 percent Democrat and the rest tend to be independent.
The choice between Clinton and Obama, he added, “is an exciting problem to have.”
Editing by David Alexander and Doina Chiacu
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