Election Day in NH: Hillary's Last Hurrah?

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 10:29 AM EST

Last night, at a rally near the Manchester airport, Hillary Clinton packed 'em in. A thousand or so people listened to her deliver a long speech outlining virtually every policy position she has ever mentioned during the campaign. On one level, it was an impressive performance. She demonstrated a command of policy and facts. She spoke passionately about her intellectual passions. On another level, it was, perhaps, too much too late. As at least two reporters in the room --including Mickey Kaus--quipped, it seemed she was delivering a State of the Union speech, particularly the sort that her husband use to give. Remember how he would go over a long laundry list of policy proposals? One of the biggest cheers of the night came when she said that if elected president she would make sure the federal student aide form wouldn't be too long.

This was as good as she gets. The crowd was pumped--though it did lose some energy as she went on and on. (And on Election Day eve, you don't want to tire out supporters who have to get up early the next morning and start working for you.) She pointed out that she was the candidate who was strong enough and experienced enough to deliver the change that the American electorate yearns for. But she took no pot shots at her opponents. "Time to tell her story," a Clinton aide said to me.

It's not such a bad story. And did the size of the crowd indicate she might just be able to pull out a win in New Hampshire? Once upon a time--that would be sixteen years ago--another Clinton became the self-proclaimed "comeback kid" of New Hampshire. (That was after placing second in New Hampshire. Talk about chutzpah!) There's no reporter in New Hampshire I've spoken to who thinks that HRC can pull it out. Instead, we discuss how big Barack Obama's win will be--and what the point spread will mean. Some political commentators claim that if Clinton can hold him to a 6-point or less win, she can claim a moral victory. I dunno. Seems to me that whatever the win is, as long as it's more than a close call, the important statistic will be this: 2 for 2.

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At their morning and afternoon events yesterday, Obama continued to soar, preaching his politics of hope, and Clinton continued to blast away at him, using weak ammo. His events were jammed. Hers (until the evening rally) were not. At a gym in Dover, there was an embarrassingly small crowd, and a Politico reporter spent an hour trying to find young pro-Clinton voters in the room. She failed. At the opera house in Rochester, hundreds of people waited in the cold for Obama, and then many did not get in.

I'm not making any prediction. But I would be stunned if Obama does not end this day with a commanding lead. And the key question of the Democratic race will only become sharper: what is she to do? I keep saying this: he's selling vision, she's selling vegetables. You can't beat vision by saying my vegetables are better yours--especially if the consumers are in the mood for vision.

And where can she stop him? In Nevada, which will hold a caucus on January 19? That caucus--a first-time event in the state--will likely be quite small. And the one political powerhouse in the state--the culinary workers union--seems poised to endorse Obama. (That endorsement could come on Wednesday.) Nevada might easily become Obama's third in a row. So South Carolina? It's hard to envision the dominant African-American vote in that state not flowing to a sweeping Obama. Some pundits floating about New Hampshire are saying Clinton ought to pull out of South Carolina. If she did, she would appear weak. But if she loses there, she would appear weak. She has no good choices in South Carolina.

That leaves Super Duper Tuesday on February 5 as the place for Clinton to make her final stand, if the Obama wave doesn't crash on its own. That's a long way off. Then again, it's in less than a month. In a way, she's being forced into a Rudy Giuliani strategy: lose all the initial bouts and then shoot the moon in the near-national primary. It's a tough model for success. Will she be able to beat back Obama in California, the key prize of February 5?

Politics is a fluid business. But things, at the moment, do seem grim for the Clinton gang. So maybe Kaus was right, and last night Clinton delivered her fantasy State of the Union speech because she realizes she might never get to do it for real.

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