Analysis: Mrs. Comeback Kid & Obama's Wave

By: By Dick Meyer
By: By Dick Meyer

Hillary Clinton wasn't just the underdog in New Hampshire. After Barack Obama's Iowa win, she was written off - by the pollsters, by the pundits and by her own campaign staff. At times, Senator Clinton herself seemed resigned and dispirited.

But the voters of New Hampshire hadn't written Clinton off at all. With drama worthy of New Hampshire's flamboyant political history, Senator Clinton repeated the epic comeback that sent her husband on his way to the White House in 1992. It was a squeaker, but it was a win.

And on her way to Clinton Comeback II, Hillary Clinton made some history by becoming the first woman to win a presidential primary in America.

Complete New Hampshire returns

And what of the Obama wave? Clinton strategists say it crested and has turned. They believe if they had more time after Iowa, Clinton's slender margin of victory in New Hampshire would have been even much wider.

So is Hillary Clinton the front-runner, the "inevitable" winner, once again? Probably not. She won New Hampshire by just a hair. The next crucial contest is South Carolina, where roughly half of the Democratic primary voters are African-American. And then there's the de facto national primary, Super Duper Tuesday, on February 5.

John Edwards finished a distant third in New Hampshire, but is likely to stay in the race at least through South Carolina, the state where he was born.

There are some big, perhaps huge, questions to be answered after the New Hampshire stunner. Why were the polls so wrong? What role did race play in New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the nation? What role will race play in the states ahead? Do voters want change Obama-style or not?

Perhaps most of all, did Senator Clinton's teary moment the day before the election somehow turn the tide? Was it a Muskie Moment in reverse? Was it a glimpse of something unscripted and tender in the American Iron Lady that changed minds and last-minute votes?

For Democrats, yesterday's conventional wisdom is today's malarkey.

Yesterday, every wise head between Washington and Manchester knew the voters wanted capital-c Change. Today, they say experience and electability carried the day.

Yesterday there were rumors from the Clinton camp that she would skip South Carolina and the little-noticed Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19 to focus her cash and campaign bandwidth on the Super Duper Tuesday states.

Yesterday, everyone from John Edwards to Mitt Romney to John McCain was swiping Obama's change and hope melody. Not today.

Two days after Hillary Clinton's third place finish in Iowa, her top pollster and strategist Mark Penn wrote a memo titled, "Where Is The Bounce?" Penn swiped the line Walter Mondale used so effectively against 1984's candidate of "change," Gary Hart, to argue that Obama wasn't getting much of a bounce from his Iowa win in New Hampshire. "New Hampshire voters are fiercely independent," Penn wrote. "They will make their own decisions about who to support." And they have.

After many public polls showed Obama with a wide lead, the grapevine said Penn's job was in danger. Presumably his job is safe for now and he's having the last laugh. "As voters began to see the choice they have and heard Hillary speak from her heart they came back to her," Penn said Tuesday night.

Senator Clinton herself resorted to Mondale's gag line repeatedly as she tried to derail Senator Obama in New Hampshire. Complaining that Obama's message of hope and change was dangerously content-free, Clinton kept asking "Where's the beef?" It was a tactic that didn't get rave reviews among the punditocracy, but it seems to have played differently with the voters.

Now the question is simple: Is there any way Barack Obama can bounce back? Certainly it has been amply proven that in Campaign '08, it's wiser to ask questions than predict outcomes.

In New Hampshire, Clinton benefited from a huge gender gap, grabbing 47 percent of the female vote compared to 34 percent for Obama. In Iowa, there was no deep divide between the sexes.

In both New Hampshire and Iowa, Clinton enjoyed overwhelming support from voters over 64.

Obama vowed to attract young voters, new voters and independents to his campaign. So far, he has delivered. In Iowa, Obama snared 57 percent of the 17-29 crowd and 42 percent of the 30-44 bracket. He took 41 percent of the voter among first-time caucus attendees. And among that 20 percent of the caucus-goers who describe themselves as independent, Obama beat Clinton 41 -17.

In New Hampshire, 61 percent of the voters between 18-24 went for Obama. Forty-three percent of Democratic primary voters actually call themselves independent and 43 percent went with Obama compared to 31 percent for Clinton and 18 percent for Edwards. But that wasn't enough for Obama this time.

Obama's support in New Hampshire was substantially mor eelite than Clinton's. He did especially well with college graduates and people whose incomes were over $100,000.

Given the dramatics so far, there could be several more shifts in momentum before South Carolina. And Florida comes right after South Carolina. But because of a party dispute over the primary date, the candidates have basically agreed not to campaign there. So it isn't clear that Florida will have any impact on the momentum of the race.

"Obama is surfing right now, and like a lot of movement candidates, you either ride the wave or get knocked off the board," said Democratic media consultant Will Robinson. "Is there time for Clinton to get people to step back and say, 'We're all excited about it, but is this the guy we really want to be president?' I don't know whether she has the capacity or the resources to get people to take a step back."

Clinton seemed to raise those doubts in the nick of time to win New Hampshire. Her campaign now has much more time to nurture questions about Obama.

"We always go through this cycle of infatuation, then extreme examination, and then tearing them down," Robinson said. Clinton's campaign is hoping the tear down of Obama has begun.

But Obama still has a potent formula. "His support comes from Democrats, Independents and even some Republicans and that kind of bipartisanship is a very refreshing change," said freshmen Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran from a rural part of Pennsylvania who endorsed Obama early on.

"Barack Obama is inspiring and motivating voters across this country, and that includes districts like mine where Republicans outnumber Democrats but there are also a lot of independent voters," Murphy said.

But Senator Clinton is holding on to the party's core, women and seniors. Still, she has learned a few tricks about "change." At her concession speech in Iowa, Clinton was surrounded by party elders like Madeleine Albright and Wesley Clark. A sea of bright, young and unknown faces provided her backdrop for New Hampshire's victory oration.

One clear loser in New Hampshire: conventional wisdom. R.I.P.

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