(Washingtonpost.com) The pillars of the New Hampshire Democratic establishment had filled the front tables at the party's annual dinner Friday night, the better to applaud enthusiastically when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, their overwhelming choice for president, talked about her readiness to lead.
But when Sen. Barack Obama took the stage, hundreds of Obama supporters swarmed the front of the hall, surrounding their tables and sending people such as Beverly Hollingworth to the exits.
"I'm really worried about him," said Hollingworth, a member of the state's Executive Council and a former state senator, as she headed for the door. "Other people have been working their whole life for change, and have made good progress. This is just rhetoric."
With the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, Obama is riding a very big wave, spreading consternation and bewilderment through the ranks of Clinton supporters here struggling to make sense of what is unfolding before them.
For months, Clinton campaign officials have assumed New Hampshire could play the same role for her that it did for Bill Clinton in 1992, when his comeback in his first primary ignited his campaign. Yet across the state, Obama is drawing crowds that are double and triple the size of Clinton's.
In Nashua on Saturday, 3,000 people jammed a high school gym, with many in an overflow room. About the same time, a crowd about a quarter that size, according to the local fire department, was at a Clinton event in Concord.
The contrast in the tone and substance of the candidates' events is even starker. Obama has infused his stump speech with a new air of assurance, telling his huge crowds that the movement of national reconciliation he has been calling for - "turning the page" for a "working majority" - is now underway, with Iowa as evidence. "New Hampshire, it is your turn to change America," he declares.
Clinton is sticking with her experience argument, telling voters that she is the candidate most able to take charge on the first day in office and to absorb Republican attacks in a general election. In Concord, she dispensed with her stump speech and instead took questions from the audience for nearly two hours, showing a policy command that several voters later said won them over.
Her supporters are placing hope in history: New Hampshire's tendency to assert itself every few years by rejecting the preference of voters in Iowa. They argue that the Iowa caucuses, with their public declarations of preference and last-minute vote-switching, are ideal for a movement candidate such as Obama. New Hampshire voters, they argue, are able to make their judgments in privacy and with greater thoughtfulness.
"New Hampshire is pragmatic. I hear everyone talk about change, but we need a strong hand to get us back on track," said Ann Martin, a federal employee who turned out at an airplane hangar in Nashua on Friday to welcome Clinton back from Iowa. "New Hampshire isn't attracted by a flash in the pan."
New Hampshire is pragmatic. I hear everyone talk about change, but we need a strong hand to get us back on track. New Hampshire isn't attracted by a flash in the pan.
There are signs, though, that the momentum that Obama has here is not simply a function of his Iowa victory. Even before Iowa, Obama had closed to within a few points of Clinton in some polls after being behind more than 20 points in September.
Political scientists attributed his rise partly to the changing demographics of the state: New Hampshire, unlike the rest of New England, has undergone significant growth in the past decade, with nearly a quarter of its eligible voters new since 2000, the year Al Gore, the establishment candidate then as Clinton is now, withstood a challenge by former senator Bill Bradley, who appealed to a similar group of voters as Obama.
These new voters have none of the bonds with the Clintons that were formed in 1992 and strengthened over the years when Bill Clinton was president.
The new residents tend to be well-educated professionals - the kind of voters Obama does best with - and many of them are political independents. Obama racked up big margins with independent voters in Iowa, and they are expected to make up an even greater share of the Democratic electorate on Tuesday. New Hampshire is also significantly younger on average than Iowa, playing to another of Obama's strengths.
Ted and April Weismann are part of New Hampshire's demographic shift. They moved to Brookline in 1999 from the Boston area partly for more affordable real estate, and they have seen many other young families follow them. They say that they, like many of their peers, are supporting Obama.
"A lot of the old-time New Hampshire people are being replaced by people from across the border, and he's the right candidate to win them," said Ted Weismann, who works in public relations. "It's a sea change."
Obama's pre-Iowa rise was also aided by the organization he has built here. As in Iowa, his campaign has reached out to new voters in unconventional ways. It organized a statewide three-on-three basketball tournament (players needed to agree to volunteer, and 160 took part), book clubs to discuss Obama's memoir, and a network of small voter groups defined by professions or common interests.
Volunteers on the state's 10 campuses got fellow students to file absentee ballots if they were going to be away on winter break Tuesday. And the campaign now has several thousand volunteers from outside the state, many of them college students, for the final push.
"Iowa has given us a shot in the arm and is making undecided voters take a look at Obama," said Jim Demers, a Concord lobbyist advising Obama's state campaign. "But our plan was always to go out and win votes."
The Clinton campaign here is countering with a solid organization and plenty of out-of-state help of its own, including a strike force of 200 volunteers sent north by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
Yet there is palpable disbelief among top Clinton supporters here that she should be facing a tight finish in a state that was once seen as Clinton turf, and against a candidate with as thin a Washington resume as Obama's.
Asked why the race here was so close, Terie Norelli, speaker of the New Hampshire House, declined to answer, instead repeating that Clinton is the "best prepared," thanks to her "35 years of experience."
Mary Louise Hancock, the 87-year-old grande dame of the state's Democrats, said she "resented" that independent voters were poised to influence the outcome of the Democratic primary, saying it turned the vote into a "personal-liking affair" dominated by "students and the trendies."
Senate President Sylvia B. Larsen came closest to acknowledging the threat. While she held out hope that Clinton could hold on here, Larsen also made the case that a loss would not be fatal.
"She's so well organized in the other states, like Ohio," Larsen said. "She's ready to go on, even if she comes in second here."
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