How Clinton pulled it out in New Hampshire.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 8 2008 11:12 PM

Hillarycare

How Clinton pulled it out in New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
An enthusiastic Hillary Clinton after the New Hampshire primary

Read John Dickerson's coverage of the Republican New Hampshire primary here.

Democrats like a fighter. Maybe that's the simplest reason Hillary Clinton pulled out a surprise victory in New Hampshire. Before her campaign even arrived here, her aides were promising they'd take the fight to Obama. In the five days between the two contests, the Clinton campaign worked hard to bring Obama down to earth. Direct mail and phone calls attacked Obama on issues from abortion to taxes. Hillary Clinton upped her criticisms considerably at Saturday's Democratic debate, in her stump speeches, and in heavy rounds of press appearances. Her central charge was that Obama was all talk. Voters who elected him would make the same know-nothing mistake they made in 2000 when they picked George Bush because they thought they'd rather have a beer with him than the other guy.

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No one thought the strategy was working, including the Clinton staff. In the days since Obama's victory in Iowa, it seemed that he was unstoppable, that he would build on the momentum of his first win, take New Hampshire and then put Nevada and South Carolina out of play, too. Rumors about Clinton shake-ups and firings swirled all Election Day. Staffers openly acknowledged that Clinton was going to lose. Heck, the candidate and her husband acted like they knew it, too. Mrs. Clinton's display of emotion the day before the vote showed how much pressure she felt. Her husband unleashed a fiery diatribe, deploying his famous pointing finger to show his exasperation and resentment as he talked about what he said was the soft treatment Obama was getting from the press. "The biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," Bill Clinton said. Another Clinton aide said today: "If we only had five more days, we'd win."

Obama thought he was winning too. He laughed off the numerous attacks. "The dump truck is backing up," he said at one rally before making the beeping sounds of a truck in reverse gear. He had reason to be cocky. He was pulling bigger and louder crowds, and the polls were showing that his support was expanding. While Clinton got teary-eyed responding to a question from a voter, Obama's performances were making voters weep.

Obama's more substantive rebuttal was that by charging he was raising "false hopes," Clinton was trying to squash the force at the heart of every triumph in American history. "Did JFK look up at the moon and say, 'Ah, false hope. Too far. Reality check. Can't do it.'?" Obama told a crowd in Lebanon, N.H. "Dr. King standing on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over that magnificent crowd, the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument: 'Sorry, guys. False hope. The dream will die. It can't be done.' "

Obama tried to paint Clinton as a killjoy, but the lower-income voters and women who have always been her base stuck with her. The assumptions that governed the race before the Iowa caucus appear to be reasserting themselves. Was it Clinton's last-minute show of emotion that helped her, or was it the greater openness she started to demonstrate toward the end of her campaign in Iowa? In town-hall meetings, she answered question after question for hours and finally made herself accessible to the press. She and her advisers realized that the strategy of keeping her closeted had been a disaster. So they did what agile politicians do and changed it.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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