(Washingtonpost.com) A few months ago, New Hampshire's reputation for delivering spellbinding primary elections was in danger. But if trend lines hold, a pair of contested primaries Tuesday will deliver outcomes with potentially enormous significance.
Just months ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was building a substantial lead over Sen. Barack Obama and her other Democratic rivals. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, capitalizing on the apparent collapse of Sen. John McCain 's campaign, was opening a lead in the Republican race.
Today Clinton is frantically trying to slow the momentum of a surging Obama, who rode into the state Friday morning after his victory in Iowa and has played to enormous and enthusiastic crowds. Obama has opened up a clear lead, and a second victory over Clinton would leave the New York senator's candidacy gasping for breath - but with her advisers already determined to try to mount a comeback.
If you wanted a measure of how discombobulated her campaign has been since Iowa, look no further than the memo sent out under the name of chief strategist Mark Penn - and reportedly approved by her inner circle of advisers - shortly before the Democratic debate on Saturday night.
"Where is the bounce?" the e-mail subject line read. Noting two newly released polls that showed a close race in New Hampshire, Penn argued that there was no statistically significant change in the Democratic contest pre- and post-Iowa.
At the time, surveys showed the race still essentially tied, but it was clear from all evidence on the ground that Obama was moving up. Within 24 hours, the memo was rendered inoperative, as new polls showed Obama with a lead of about 10 percentage points, which is where Monday night surveys put the race.
On the Republican side, McCain is the focus - his revived candidacy aided by disarray in the GOP field and by Romney's loss to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Now Romney's outcome may depend on whether independents, who backed McCain eight years ago, move in major numbers to the Democratic primary and Obama.
The huge crowds that have greeted the candidates here in the past four days foreshadow a potentially record turnout - topping the 2004 Democratic primary, when 221,000 voters participated, or the 2000 Republican primary, when 239,500 did so.
"The state is as involved as it's ever been," said Tom Rath, a strategist on Romney's team. "We're going to have massive turnout."
The Republican race appeared more competitive on primary eve, but the Democratic contest holds the greater significance, if only because of what it may say about the future of the couple who gave the party consecutive White House terms for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency.
Top Clinton campaign officials and alarmed allies are braced for a defeat on Tuesday. Five days is not enough, they have argued, to slow and reverse the momentum Obama developed in Iowa. What they are looking to do is hold down his margin in New Hampshire and then try to restart the race on Wednesday, hoping to stay alive until Feb. 5, when many of the biggest states in the nation will hold primaries.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, we're going on," Clinton told CBS Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith on Monday morning. "And we're going to keep going until the end of the process on February 5th. But I've always felt that this is going to be a very tough, hard-fought election, and I'm ready for that."
But like Penn's Saturday memo, that may be more wish than reality. By Wednesday, it may be too late. By then, Obama's campaign may have inflicted enough damage on the woman-who-was-once-inevitable that no amount of readjusting, recalibrating and rearranging will give her the wherewithal to overcome two big losses in the first contests of the 2008 nomination battle.
The New York Post headline on Monday morning read "Panic." When Smith asked "Is your campaign in panic?" Clinton replied: "Well, I'm not."
People close to the senator from New York said she has been clear-eyed about the challenge since arriving here early Friday - and determined to turn things around. But her team is far less confident. Loyalists describe a campaign that failed to provide Clinton with a new core message or focus after Iowa.
She spent Friday in one mode: reiterating in slightly sharper language her Iowa theme that the key issue is who is ready to be president. By Saturday she began to toughen that message. By Sunday she was making even stronger arguments against Obama, and by Monday morning she was in all-out contrast mode.
"Where's the beef?" she asked of Obama, invoking the words of former vice president Walter F. Mondale during his ultimately successful comeback against then-Sen. Gary Hart in 1984. The Clinton team hopes that with more time, it can shift the focus to Obama in a way that will force voters in later states to take a closer look at him. But the comeback is built on a series of assumptions, some of which could prove as faulty as the "Where is the bounce?" memo.
Clinton's advisers believe their first lifeline is Nevada, where pre-Iowa and pre-New Hampshire polls showed her with a big lead. But if Obama wins in New Hampshire, he will have the inside track on an endorsement from the Culinary Workers Union, which could play a significant role in a caucus process that is brand new to voters in the state.
The next stop will be South Carolina. That state's Jan. 26 primary will be the first on the Democratic calendar in which African Americans will play a significant role. Clinton and her husband have a long and strong relationship with black voters, but she will have a struggle against the first viable black presidential candidate.
The Republican contest will not end in New Hampshire by any means. The candidates will next move to Michigan for its Jan. 15 primary. McCain will be favored there if he wins New Hampshire, but a Romney victory would send the confused race to South Carolina on Jan. 19 with three different winners in the first three contests.
Research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.
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