Magazine article The Spectator

On to South Carolina: Hillary Gets Back on Track

Magazine article The Spectator

On to South Carolina: Hillary Gets Back on Track

Article excerpt

Londonderry, New Hampshire

Hillary Clinton has now done something that her husband never managed: she has won a contested New Hampshire primary. In doing so, she has revived her presidential campaign and ensured that the 2008 Democratic presidential primary will be an epic and drawn-out contest. Her recovery from near political death is up there with Truman's defeat of Dewey as the greatest comeback story in the history of American politics. On the day of the vote the talk was about how much she would lose by, which campaign aide would carry the can -- and whether she would soon have to fold her tent for the sake of her own dignity. Not a single poll predicted her victory, and the vast majority had Obama ahead outside the margin of error. According to the Clinton camp's own polling, she was behind by 11 points. Obama's people put him 14 points ahead. Now, another Clinton is a comeback kid, and Hillary's dream of becoming the first female president is no longer on life support.

On Thursday night in Iowa, Hillary Clinton looked finished. Her concession speech was pedestrian and, surrounded by members of Bill Clinton's administration, she looked like a figure from the past. Barack Obama, by contrast, delivered a victory speech to rival his celebrated address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He had the momentum, the energy.

By the weekend, Obama was drawing overflow crowds everywhere he went in New Hampshire, and was ahead in the polls by double digits. I met one undecided voter who had tried and failed to see him three times: only those who arrived very early got into his rallies.

In the Democratic debate, Hillary was savaged by John Edwards, the third candidate, and in the spin room afterwards Mark Penn, Hillary's much-criticised chief strategist, was sweating so much that you'd have thought the debate was taking place in Florida in August, not New Hampshire in January. By contrast, David Axelrod, Obama's key strategist, was calm and quiet, and had no difficulty swatting away Penn's debating points.

The remarkable turnaround was driven by Hillary's own never-say-die attitude: the grit that had got her through the Clinton scandals got her out of this bind. On Sunday morning, she attended a canvass kick-off in Manchester. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. She was running late even though it was her first event of the day. When she did arrive neither the megaphone nor the microphone she was supposed to use worked. Then when she started to speak, the running engine of her campaign bus drowned her out. But the Clinton women -- Bill was absent -- turned it around. Chelsea flirted with the cameras, much to the snapper's surprise, and Hillary kept her calm and her dignity. Her refusal to give in made her comeback possible. The worse the polls got the harder she worked.

Perhaps the turning point of the campaign came when Hillary choked up on Monday responding to an innocuous question about how she keeps going on the trail. At that point, it became clear what was at stake in New Hampshire: if Obama won this contest Hillary's campaign would effectively be over.

This flash of vulnerability appears to have sobered up New Hampshire voters, particularly women, whom she ended up winning by 13 points. The voters were not prepared to end the campaign that quickly, and saw that while Hillary might represent the status quo she was also a human being. Many did not want to kick a woman when she was down. The protective blanket that was thrown around her by her supporters at her final rally in Manchester clearly extended far outside Hillaryland.

On a strategic level, the Clinton campaign made one big change. They started running Hillary against President Bush as they had during the summer months when she was cruising in the polls. The contrast appears to have reminded voters that the status-quo ante wasn't so bad after all.

The race now turns on how Obama responds to this setback, the first that he has faced since coming to national prominence in 2004. …

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