It's only just begun. After five days of rapturous reports about the energy and excitement—much of it youthful—surrounding Barack Obama in the wake of his surprise Iowa rout, expectations in New Hampshire were sky-high for the freshman Illinois senator. But when the Granite State spoke, it was not Obama who had won—it was once (and perhaps future) front runner Hillary Clinton, by 2 percent, overcoming the doubts of pundits, pollsters, her staff and even her husband to right her careening campaign. And while the Republican result was less of a shock—McCain by eight, just as the polls had predicted—it left the party faithful no closer than the Democrats to choosing a candidate to lead them into next November's election. Such is the pleasure—and the pain—of the most unpredictable presidential primary contest in modern memory.
Fiercely independent, the voters of New Hampshire refused Tuesday night to follow in the footsteps of their Iowa brethren, who cast their ballots last week for Obama and Mike Huckabee—candidates who compensate for a lack of seasoning with a surfeit of charisma. Instead they chose Clinton and McCain. Tested hands, both claimed that their Beltway experience would better advance the cause of change (which, according to the exit polls, was what most voters were looking for). Both recently read their own political obituaries—McCain over the summer, and Clinton over the last week, when polls put her eight points behind Obama. But nearly 250,000 voters waited until the final week to pick a candidate, and in the end both Clinton and McCain were resurrected.
Bill Clinton felt the tide turn on Monday afternoon. "Most of our people thought it was going to be a nightmare," Clinton told NEWSWEEK, his eyes brimming with tears. "I just had a hunch, though. The people of New Hampshire have never disappointed me, and they didn't tonight. But they sure did surprise me."
In the raucous gymnasium of Manchester's Southern New Hampshire University—site of Clinton's victory party—the New York senator played the pundit, suggesting that it was her newfound "openness" that had propelled her past Obama. "Over the last week I listened to you," she said, "and in the process I found my own voice." The pollsters repeated their own rationales—a 10-point lead among union members, a 13-point edge among women—but to those who had spent the last five days in New Hampshire, Clinton's lovely phrase rang just as true. Asked who made the decision to put Hillary out there, Bill immediately responded, "She did." "It was her decision," he said. "The voters of New Hampshire demand it." Wary of the press, Hillary nevertheless started interacting. At rallies she spent hours answering 25, 30 questions—far more than the two or three she typically fielded in Iowa. And at a Portsmouth coffee shop on Monday, she nearly cried. "A lot of people who saw Hillary as one-dimensional saw her acting in a very human way, and they connected," said Ann Lewis, a senior campaign adviser. Lewis claimed that the campaign was flooded with e-mails from women, especially young women, who "finally" saw how a woman could be held to a different standard. "All day long we heard from women saying, 'Now I get it'," said Lewis. On stage last night Clinton seemed to get it as well, transforming her solipsistic announcement slogan—"We're in it to win"—into something more generous: "We are in it for the American people."
At the Obama event in Nashua, supporters were silent as the results trickled in. They had hoped to deliver a knockout punch, but now, it seemed, the battle would continue for several more rounds. Yesterday reports indicated that the all-important Culinary Workers union in Nevada would back Obama on Wednesday; Democrats told the Wall Street Journal that such support from the state's largest union "would virtually hand him a victory in the labor-dominated caucuses" on Jan. 19. Following on Jan. 26 is South Carolina—a state the Clinton campaign was considering ceding after the state's black population shifted to Obama in the wake of the Iowa caucuses. But neither contest is a foregone conclusion now, and Clinton looks stronger than ever in the delegate-rich states of Tsunami Tuesday. John Edwards, who finished a distant third with 17 percent of the vote, vowed to continue "until the convention, and on to the White House."
For McCain, the word of the evening was comeback—even if he is "too old" to pair it with the word kid, as he quipped in his victory speech. McCain entered the race just over a year ago as the presumed front runner for the GOP nomination, but his shift from maverick insurgent to establishment heir left many voters cold. He raised less money than his opponents and spent more, and by summer his campaign had imploded. So he gambled it all on New Hampshire, where he had won in 2000. Traveling the state in a borrowed SUV, he didn't shy away from his controversial view on immigration or his support of the surge in Iraq—even when he slipped to single digits in the polls. It was only fitting, then, that supporters chanted "The Mac is back! The Mac is back!" over the theme song from "Rocky" as the 71-year-old Arizona senator arrived at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Nashua for his victory party. "When the pundits declared us finished, I told them, 'I'm going to New Hampshire, where the voters don't let you make their decision for them'," he said. McCain's staffers—including many who worked for months with no pay—were clearly emotional. "This is the greatest political comeback in history," said senior adviser Steve Schmidt.
Twenty miles away, at the CR Sparks Event Center in Bedford, the Romney campaign, which until recently led by wide margins in Iowa and New Hampshire and had long staked its success on resounding early wins, entered spin mode as it struggled to absorb its second crushing loss. "We were running essentially against an incumbent here," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "We came in a very strong second, and I think our goal of being competitive in all of the early primary states has been met." But reporters weren't buying it. "At what point do you guys start worrying that maybe the governor's message isn't selling?" asked one, noting that Madden had pinned Romney's Iowa loss on an evangelical surge. "Worrying is for those without a plan," the spokesman snapped. Onstage for his concession speech, Romney flashed a broad smile, but his wife and sons were visibly upset. "I've gotten two silvers and one gold," he told the crowd of hundreds, thanking Wyoming for his lone primary victory. "It's time to send somebody to Washington who will actually get the job done."
It looks increasingly unlikely that Romney will have the chance to act on his Obama-inspired promise to "bring change to Washington," repeated constantly as he sought to revive his flagging bid over the last five days. But McCain's path to the nomination—like those of rivals Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani—is no clearer. McCain flies out of Manchester tomorrow, stopping en route in Michigan for a pair of airport appearances before continuing on to the Palmetto State, where he'll remain at least through Friday, for a nighttime rally at the Citadel. His plan: to emphasize "jobs," "displaced workers" and "competition" in the ailing auto capital, as he told reporters Monday aboard the Straight Talk Express, and "veterans … the war … [and] the National Guard" in South Carolina, a state rife with retired and active-duty personnel. He needs at least one win before Feb. 5 to remain viable. With favorite son Romney on the decline, Michigan (Mitt's firewall) may be McCain's best shot; Huckabee leads by 12 points in evangelical-heavy South Carolina. On Jan. 29 the field will face off against Giuliani, tonight's fourth-place finisher, in Florida. There won't be a front runner until at least Feb. 6.
Rare in recent times, a long, hard-fought campaign is something to be excited about. At this point, fewer than a million voters have voiced their presidential preferences. But there are 300 million people in America—and the more who participate, the better. On the eve of the primary, the intersection of Loudon and Main in Concord was like most every other street corner in New Hampshire: swarmed by supporters of every stripe shaking signs and whooping at passing cars. Clinton. Huckabee. Paul. Obama. Kucinich. Passing drivers honked every second or so. While a reporter waited for the light to change, he joked that there was no way to know who they were honking for. "Yeah," said a freezing Huckabee supporter, "but at least they're honking." Thanks to New Hampshire, millions more will now make themselves heard as well.