- Associated Press - Monday, December 21, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Gone are the Bojangles fried chicken and biscuits. When supporters offer Tex-Mex, she takes a salad. And forget about cake (most of the time).

As Hillary Clinton knows from previous presidential campaigns, politicking means picking your food carefully.

When her staff laid out a spread of pulled pork and beans from Whole Hog Cafe after a stop in Little Rock, the Democratic front-runner ate a single tomato slice. Though she forgoes a Fitbit to count her steps, Clinton sends her campaign team to scout out secluded tracks for brisk walks and hotel rooms with space for yoga. And she swears by the weight-loss power of hot peppers, keeping red pepper flakes on hand when on the road.

Since launching her 2016 bid in April, Clinton has embarked on a diet and fitness regimen, hoping to stave off the pounds that afflict most every White House hopeful amid the near-sleepless nights and temptation of nonstop snacking during a campaign.

Among supporters, her significant weight-loss - along with a style makeover - are subjects of constant chatter.

“She must be doing something right that I couldn’t figure out how to do politically and gastronomically,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Clinton backer who said he added 35 pounds, ballooning up to 195, during his eight-month campaign for president in 2004. “I don’t know how people stay trim on the campaign trail.”

All candidates have their tricks for staying fit while hustling for votes. President Barack Obama has often complained about the fried food that is a staple of campaign stops and is a regular at the gym, even when traveling. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul avoids fries. Republican Jeb Bush is a devotee of the Paleo diet, claiming to have lost 40 pounds by cutting carbs and dairy.

“I’m not skinny,” he said this fall. “I’m perfectly sized.”

But no politician’s looks have been scrutinized as long or as intensely as Clinton’s, whose appearance has been a topic of conversation for decades.

“It’s a daily challenge,” she said earlier this year to a participant in a Facebook chat, whoo asked how she manages to get camera-ready each morning. “I do the best I can - and as you may have noticed, some days are better than others!”

Unlike her self-described “vegan-ish” husband and gluten-free daughter, aides say Clinton doesn’t follow a specific diet plan. Instead, they say, she goes by the general rule of “if it looks bad for you, it’s probably bad for you.”

Her one secret: Raw hot peppers. At a farm stand in Davenport, Iowa, this fall, Clinton detailed scientific research on the health effects of spicy food, telling a cashier that she finds eating raw jalapenos “so refreshing.”

“During 2008, there was not a day or a minute that went by that we didn’t have a full plate of raw jalapenos,” said Jamie Smith, a 2008 campaign aide, who once received a pep talk from Clinton about her inability to handle their heat. “She ate them like potato chips.”

Former and current staffers describe her food tastes as surprisingly normal, saying she snacks on cheddar Goldfish crackers.

While she would occasionally indulge when she campaigned for fellow Democrats during the 2014 elections, snacking on fried chicken and Mexican food, Clinton has now adopted more discipline.

Dining with supporters in Washington earlier this month at Etto, an Italian restaurant known for its wood-fired pizzas, Clinton opted for a cauliflower salad.

At the Iowa State Fair, an annual calorie-rich stop for candidates, she picked up a pork chop on a stick, but ate only three bites in public. (Aides say she later ate the whole chop - not because it was a political obligation, but because she said it was “delicious.”)

Clinton has been fairly candid about the struggles of eating right during her time in public life and has over the decades met with a series of nutrition gurus. In the 1990s, with low-fat diets on the rise, she invited Dean Ornish into the White House to lighten up the presidential menu.

Eventually, Clinton fired chef Pierre Chambrin, known for his butter-laden French fare, and hired Walter Scheib, who specialized in lower-fat food - and would agree to provide meal-by-meal calorie counts. Any diet that Clinton tried, Scheib did, too.

Many of their meals centered on fish and vegetables. Clinton favored hummus, had a collection of more than 100 hot sauces and a weakness for mocha cake and Dove ice cream bars - a favorite of daughter Chelsea.

After leaving office, both Clintons flirted with the low-carb South Beach diet before meeting Mark Hyman, the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, who advocates for a mix of whole foods, proteins and natural fats.

But some campaign rigors call for special indulgences. After her 11-hour testimony before congressional Republicans in October, Clinton took a quick break from calorie-counting.

“I had my whole team come over to my house, and we sat around eating Indian food and drinking wine and beer,” she said in an interview with MSNBC the next day. “That’s what we did. It was great.”

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Follow Lisa Lerer on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/llerer

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