Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Independent New Hampshire

Republicans will no doubt think of tonight as the Night of the Living Dead. They thought Obama has stuck a stake in the heart of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. On their side of the aisle, McCain was given up for lost. As I write this post, Clinton won a two-point victory over Obama, and McCain leads Romney by five points. What happened?

First, I should admit that like many, including Sens. Clinton and Obama, I was utterly surprised by the result. The pre-election night polls had Obama comfortably ahead. Even the New Hampshire exit poll suggested that Obama eked out a one point lead.

Many have pointed to Hillary's moment of welling up, though not actually crying, as a turning point. I agree, though not for the reasons cited by many. I don't think Clinton collected a sympathy or mercy vote. Instead, I think that her exterior, undoubtedly hardened by years of harsh attacks from the Right, was finally pierced. The electorate welcomed a sight of a human Hillary.

Sen. Clinton's victory speech was far more impressive than that of Sen. McCain. McCain's speech was adequate but the energy of the speech contrasted greatly with that of his young supporters. To my not so young eyes, it appeared relatively geriatric. Still, Sen. McCain is clearly a decent man. Like Sen. Clinton, he found his voice in New Hampshire.

Hillary should also continue to answer more questions from voters and the press. She often gives excellent answer to questions--she refuted Charlie Gibson's assertion that the surge in Iraq has worked not just adeptly but with style. By shielding her from the electorate and the press a la Bush, her advisers took away a major Clinton asset. Don't do it again.

Sen. Obama's long history of community organizing served him better in Iowa than in New Hampshire. Iowa is a process of collecting and mobilizing committed supporters to turn out. New Hampshire isn't quite the same affair. I suspect that Obama's ability to mobilize the young had less of an impact in New Hampshire. Clinton's long-term work at building an organization nationwide paid off in New Hampshire tonight.

Next, the Clintons learn fast. Let's be frank: Sen. Clinton gave a sad speech in Iowa, even for an unexpectedly poor finish. Gov. Huckabee (Governor Huckster?) made much more hay out of an eleven percent finish in New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, instead of being flanked by aging establishment figures, she surrounded her television view with energetic under-30s. The speech was far better and more human.

It was a very hard night for Obama. Unlike Clinton in Iowa, he had reason to expect to win in New Hampshire. Just as he has lifted up so many crowds, his supporters gradually lifted him up in New Hampshire and his speech gained its verve towards the end. He began graciously by congratulating Clinton. Still, he might have made more out of his close loss here.

The one off-key aspect of Sen. Clinton's speech was her lumping of Obama and Edwards--two candidates who attracted significant support--at the end of her mention with the rest of the also-rans, including candidates who have already dropped out of the race. She clearly doesn't like the young Senator from Illinois. She'd be advised to be more gracious in victory.

It's the most exciting presidential nomination contest I can recall. An emotional night for all concerned. And it's far from over yet. On to South Carolina.