The Comeback Kid, Take Two?

Aboard a chartered jet from Iowa to New Hampshire Thursday night, aides to Sen. Hillary Clinton wasted no time in trying to spin her devastating loss in Iowa as little more than a "bump in the road" and "the beginning of the marathon." Clinton press secretary Jay Carson dismissed the results of the caucuses as a "curious example" of voter will. "Don't extrapolate too much from 230,000 voters in one state," he said. "It wouldn't be wise to base too much on the outcome in a single state."

It wasn't an easy sell. After months of trying to build an aura of inevitability and invincibility around their candidate, Clinton's team found itself struggling to roll back expectations—and grasping for a new storyline. While they feigned nonchalance, the anxiety was palpable. "It was a bump in the road, no question about that," chief strategist Mark Penn told reporters in a rare appearance. During her postcaucus speech earlier that evening, the room was full of blue signs proclaiming her supporters "Ready for Change." But to bury the bad Hawkeye State memories, Penn opted for a familiar script: Clinton as Comeback Kid, Take Two. The deciding votes won't come in "high touch" states like Iowa and New Hampshire, or even in South Carolina on Jan. 26, he suggested, but rather on Super-Duper Tuesday. "Iowa has always been a unique, low-turnout, high-touch state." Iowa doesn't typically pick presidents, the Clinton camp reminded reporters; the winner of the state's caucuses hasn't gone on to the White House since 1976. "The critical day is Feb. 5," says Penn. "Don't forget, Bill Clinton lost five times before he won a race."

Comeback Kid I was reportedly stunned by the turnout—which the Des Moines Register, in a survey trashed by the campaign, correctly predicted. Aides hemmed and hawed about Clinton's response, but campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe allowed that Bill was "very surprised" by the record-setting turnout, spurred by first-time caucusgoers who backed Obama. The Clinton camp had seen trouble coming for the past week, Penn conceded, giving too much weight to older women who had attended caucuses in the past. Hillary was undone by the "expanding universe" scenario, which brought out an extra 80,000 voters, thanks to Obama's superb field organization.

With New Hampshire heading to the polls next Tuesday—and less than a month until the primary season effectively ends on Feb. 5—the Clinton team is giving clear signals the gloves are coming off. "Until now," says Penn, "this has been a referendum on her. People will take a second look. They will take a harder look [at Obama]. We have to start holding him to the same standards as people do Hillary. So far that's not [been] the case."

New ads go up Friday in New Hampshire. Expect several lines of attack. Clinton will go after Obama's inconsistent record on gun control, not so popular in the Granite State, and she'll revive her claim that he lacks sufficient experience to handle the job. "This had nothing to do with the issues. When it comes to the issues, we're seen as president," Penn said. Clinton herself may go after Obama for exaggerating his antiwar credentials, noting that his Senate votes on spending authorizations were no different from her own. Look for these volleys Friday night at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's "100 Club" dinner and again during Saturday night's debate.

While her aides know there's little Hillary can do to neutralize Obama's hip, charismatic appeal, that's not what ultimately moves voters, they say. "Time and time again in the Democratic Party you've seen people latch on to a new, seemingly fresh candidate only to take a sobering look at the choices they face," Penn said. "Being president is a very serious job. At the end of the day, people will make a judgment that she's ready to lead the country … given war and economic difficulties." There are hints that Obama in a general election campaign would be ill-equipped to withstand the inevitable GOP barrage of attacks on his admitted past drug use, his left-of-center record, and his exotic ethnic background.

Penn says the campaign will also pressure the press to give the Iowa victor closer scrutiny. "It's up to the press to begin doing the vetting job they haven't done," he says, giving voice to one of Bill Clinton's major complaints. "Does everyone know everything they need to know about Barack Obama? His record is not very well known. She's fully known, fully vetted."