In New Hampshire, Hillary Finds It Tough To Dash Obama's Hope

| Fri Jan. 4, 2008 4:32 PM EST

The battle of New Hampshire—on the Democratic side—opened Friday morning with an obvious question: what, if anything, would Hillary Clinton do differently? Her 8-point loss to Barack Obama in Iowa was a clear indicator that what she had been doing until then was not working. And when it comes to the sort of voters who contributed to Obama's impressive win on Thursday night—including independent, young, and upscale voters—New Hampshire is a better hunting ground for Obama than Iowa. So reporters and politicos were wondering how Clinton would recalibrate in response to the thumpin' she had received.

Early in the morning, in a cold airport hangar in Nashua, in front of a couple of hundred people (including Arkansans and AFSCME union workers who were bussed in), Clinton provided the answer: not much. In her only major campaign appearance of the day (she would later join the other Democratic candidates at a dinner for the state Democratic party), she essentially stuck with the message that had failed her in Iowa.

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Before she took the stage with husband Bill (who looked somewhat somber) and daughter Chelsea, the crowd chanted "ready for change, ready to lead." Her husband gave a short introduction notable for what he did not say. Sixteen years ago, in the days prior to the 1992 New Hampshire primary, his candidacy was on the ropes due to the report that he had engaged in an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers. He ended up placing second in New Hampshire (behind former Senator Paul Tsongas, the near-favorite son from next door in Massachusetts) and immodestly declared himself the "comeback kid." During his introduction this morning—and during Hillary's subsequent remarks—there was no recognition that once again the Clintons were looking to New Hampshire to save them.

Instead, Clinton delivered, in B-plus (at best) manner, her generic stump speech: she has experience and she would be ready to go as president on Day One. She took a few of the usual pokes at Obama, noting "we need a president who won't just call for change... but a president who will produce change." She said voters should not make a "leap of faith" in selecting a nominee. She did shift one of her rhetorical standards. Instead of offering herself as ready to lead, she declared she was ready to win. Noting that she has been pursued by conservative antagonists for years, she maintained she was the candidate best "able to withstand the Republican attack machine." She added, "The one thing you know about me after 16 years of taking all their incoming fire, I am still here."

The message: they will crush Obama, so you better vote for me.

That's not very inspirational. But what else does she have to offer? She has been making the experience argument for a year, and Iowa Democrats said, thanks, but no thanks. There are no profound policy differences between her and Obama that she can exploit. Toward the end of the event, in response to a question from the crowd, she maintained that she was quite electable in red states, pointing out that ten Democratic senators have endorsed her. But given what happened in Iowa the night before, this was not the best time for her to be making an electability argument. (Remember, 70 percent of the Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa spurned her.)

Clinton may have no choice but to keep repeating what did not work in Iowa. She could try to attack Obama directly. But when she previously has gone on the offensive it has backfired. And tearing into the party's new Bobby Kennedy could be perilous. Her presentation in the airport hangar indicated her campaign has made the strategic decision to keep with its preexisting game plan and hope to best Obama if not in New Hampshire than in subsequent rounds.

Arrogance? Denial? The only choice she and her crew have? At the end of the event, her chief aides, who were roaming the hangar, did not hang around to talk to (that is, work) the reporters, as so often happens at campaign functions. Maybe they had no spin to offer.

Hours later, Obama triumphantly appeared in a crowded gymnasium at Concord High School. The room was packed with students (who were allowed to cut classes to attend) and several hundred adults. Unlike the Clinton event, there was energy in the room. While Clinton supporters had clapped for her in the hangar, audience members at the Obama event screamed for their man. The passion differential was stark.

Obama, too, stuck with his routine speech. But now he had victory on his side. Since the start of his campaign, he had put forward a theory: there are voters who yearn for a different kind of politics. Over the months, he did put out progressive policy proposals, and he voiced his opposition to the war. But he added to all this a call for transcending the political divisions of America. If we can change the nature of politics, we can change the nature of the government, Obama said. He was offering voters something more than the usual Democratic positions. And he presented his desire for this change as a qualification for office. Moreover, he said, he was not merely mounting a candidacy, he was serving a cause that voters could join by supporting him. There was no telling if this could work. Until Iowa. Yes, the hunger that Obama claimed there was does seem to exist. And, yes, he was the answer—at least for a plurality of caucus-goers.

In the Concord High gym, Obama noted that he had been vindicated. He asked New Hampshire voters not to listen to those who would urge them not "to trust your own gut and feelings." He warned that there will be critics who will say that "Obama has not been in Washington long enough. He needs to be seasoned and stewed. We need to boil all the hope out of him." The audience laughed along. The "real gamble," he added, was relying on the "same old folks" in Washington (read: the Clintons). He said he was well prepared to deal with the "operatives who will try to tear me down." But, he added, "I'm not interested in them. I'm interested in you."

He spoke eloquently of the power of hope, citing hope as the motivation for the colonists who fought for independence, the abolitionists who fought to end slavery, the "greatest generation" that fought to defeat fascism during World War II, the unions that fought for the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage, the women who fought for the right to vote, and the civil rights workers who fought for equality. "That's what hope is," he said. "Imagining and then fighting... to create what wasn't there before, what the cynics say wasn't possible." He declared there is "a moment in every generation when that spirit has to come through. This is that moment."

It was heady stuff, a politician comparing his candidacy to American independence, World War II, and the civil rights movement. But Obama, who today reeked of the confidence that comes from being a winner, connected with the audience. He certainly can brag he connected with Iowan voters. Hillary's practical case—I have way more experience working in Washington and fighting off those Republican meanies—doesn't answer the inspirational argument Obama presents. The two are operating on different planes. She's selling vegetables; he's selling a vision. And the buyers in Iowa made a choice.

At the moment, it seems as if she cannot compete with him on these terms. How she can fight hope remains an unanswered question.

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