Victory in New Hampshire The Reinvention of Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton's sensational comeback victory against Barack Obama in New Hampshire will put both candidates back on an equal footing in the next round of the Democratic primaries. Republican candidate John McCain also played his cards well -- even if he lacks the party establishment's backing.

By in Nashua, New Hampshire


Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Hillary Clinton: "I listened to you ... and found my own voice."
REUTERS

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Hillary Clinton: "I listened to you ... and found my own voice."

New York Senator Hillary Clinton is standing in the overflowing sports hall of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. The crowd has grown so loud that it takes a few minutes before she is even able to speak. She smiles -- happy and relaxed. Then she's finally able to begin: "Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice." Clinton pauses. She could actually end her speech at this point. Her supporters seem overjoyed, and it’s the sentence that will appear in all the papers the next day. Clinton is already full aware of this -- you can see it in her smile, which is almost mesmerizing.

It's 11:30 p.m. and Hillary Clinton isn't just celebrating an election victory. She's just reinvented herself -- as a more accessible, open and likeable candidate.

If not now, then when? Clinton has completed an astounding comeback. In a completely unexpected development, the former first lady has halted Obama's advance with 39 percent of New Hampshire, Democratic voters backing her compared to 37 for Illinois Senator Barack Obama. As late as election day, Clinton was as far as 10 points behind Obama in almost every public opinion poll. "Now, together, let's give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me," Clinton said. The Democratic primaries now appear to be a clear battle between two candidates, especially with John Edwards falling far behind the front-runners, gaining only 17 percent of the votes in New Hampshire.

Huckabee Loses Traction

John McCain -- with 37 percent of the votes, the clear Republican victor -- served as Tuesday night's other comeback kid. Under a hail of confetti, his supporters chanted, "The Mac is back" in an overflowing hotel ballroom in Nashua. "Tonight, we sure showed 'em what a comeback looks like," McCain said. For McCain, it was a repeat of his triumphant primary victory in the state against George W. Bush eight years ago -- and this, coming just six months after he nearly had to declare his candidacy bankrupt because he angered Republican donors with his support for granting citizenship rights to illegal immigrants.

In second place, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney only managed to get 32 percent of the vote. And Mike Huckabee, ex-governor of Arkansas and a former Baptist preacher, managed only a paltry 11 percent. Huckabee, who won in Iowa, profited in that state from massive support from the religious right. But his message found less traction on the East Coast and its less religious voters.

The lines at polling stations were long all across New Hampshire -- so long that some precincts even ran out of ballots. Lines also formed in front of South Nashua High School, where Obama held his election-night party. "Today, history is being written," young guests chanted before the release of the results. But history isn't finished, either, and Obama conceded his defeat before Clinton made her victory speech. "I am still fired up and ready to go," Obama said. "A few months ago, no one would have conceived of us achieving what we have today," he said, trying to put a positive spin on his loss.

In fact, Obama once again put in a strong performance at the polling booths. Nevertheless, he's still being viewed by election observers as the day's big loser. On the morning of the election, he gave one final speech at Dartmouth College -- one that resembled a rock concert. One female student even passed out from over-exhilaration. Meanwhile, the Clintons seemed almost hopeless. Bill Clinton angrily attacked Obama in the media, saying, "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." During her campaign appearance on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton teared up.

Rumors had already started circulating that the Clinton campaign might have to forgo stumping in the next several states because its coffers are emptying. But her Tuesday night victory changes everything. Now the "expectations" game that marks all American election campaigns has set in. That means that whoever does better than expected is the true winner and whoever does worse than expected is the loser.

The next stage in the Democrats' battle is Nevada on Jan. 19, where around 40 percent of voters are Latinos. In South Carolina a week later, it will be a matter of who appeals more to African-American voters. Despite his ethnic background, Barack Obama is not the automatic favorite there, since the Clintons have maintained close ties to the African-American community. And both camps have bulging war chests for "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when 22 states will vote simultaneously. That money has been set aside for expensive TV ads in the big states like California and New York.

Unorthodox and Undaunted

In the Republican camp, John McCain is now in with a real chance. Unlike eight years ago, this time he not only attracted the independents in New Hampshire but also the conservative voters. The 71-year-old senator can put this down to his unconditional support for the increase in troops for Iraq. Although being a senator makes him a Washington insider, his maverick stance makes him seem like a credible proponent of all-out change, for which there is great thirst.

But, above all, McCain has been able to profit from his rivals' weakness. Huckabee doesn’t seem capable of expanding his coalition beyond the religious right. His lack of foreign policy knowledge and his strange tax plans have made traditional conservatives nervous. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's strategy of using early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to get a head start has failed dramatically despite the investment of millions of dollars towards that effort. And Rudi Giuliani, with only nine percent of the vote, hardly made a dent in New Hampshire. His strategy of concentrating on victories in bigger states like Florida and California is looking more and more questionable.

For his part, McCain, the unorthodox senator from Arizona, is likely to remain unpopular with a broad swathe of the Republican Party because he undauntedly fights lobbyists, doesn’t join in on the crackdown on illegal immigrants, and openly speaks out against torture. Eight years ago he lost a fierce battle for the candidacy to George W. Bush, who had the big guns in the party shooting for him. The lack of alternatives this time may force them to grudgingly accept McCain.

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