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McCain, Obama showing N.H. gains

The Baltimore Sun

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- The presidential candidates stepped up their attacks last night, as new polls showed that Barack Obama and John McCain have gained ground heading into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

Hillary Clinton, fighting to bounce back from a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, leveled her most direct attacks of the campaign on Obama last night, in a nationally televised debate.

Earlier, in the Republican half of the back-to-back forums, Mitt Romney came under heavy fire from several of his Republican rivals.

But the most heated exchanges of the three-hour marathon came when Clinton accused Obama of breaking promises from his 2006 Senate campaign.

"You said you would vote against the Patriot Act. You came to the Senate; you voted for it. You said that you would vote against funding for the Iraq war. You came to the Senate, and you voted for $300 billion of it," said Clinton.

She also accused Obama of having a New Hampshire lobbyist as his state campaign chairman after vowing to curb the power of lobbyists in Washington.

Obama shot back by accusing Clinton of distorting his record, arguing that the voters are looking for a candidate who talks "straight about the issues and are going to be interested in solving problems and bringing people together. That's the reason, I think, we did so well in Iowa."

John Edwards jumped in to side with Obama, implying that Clinton's attack was a response by "the forces of the status quo" to calls for change in Washington.

Clinton responded, with some asperity, that "making change is not about what you believe. It's not about a speech you make. It's about working hard."

Clinton was also asked to address concerns that voters are hesitant to support her because they don't like her personally. After feigning hurt feelings at the question, she shifted to her claim to be best-suited to provide the change that voters say they want this year.

"I think having the first woman president is a huge change, with consequences across this country and around the world," she said, to applause from the audience inside the debate hall at Saint Anselm College.

She also pointed to the limits of likability, implicitly comparing Obama to President Bush.

"In 2000, we, unfortunately, ended up with a president who people said they wanted to have a beer with - who said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider. And he was going to, you know, really come into the White House and transform the country," she said. "There are the majority of Americans who think that was not the right choice."

But when she returned to her attack on Obama's skills as an orator - say that words "beautifully presented and passionately felt" are not action, Obama portrayed her as a cynic.

"The truth is, words do inspire, words do help people get involved," he responded. "Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens."

In the Republican debate, several candidates ganged up on Romney, accusing him of changing his position on numerous issues and criticizing his negative campaign commercials.

A heated exchange over immigration, the most searing issue in the Republican campaign, became personal when McCain accused Romney of distorting his position on what to do with the estimated 12 million people now in this country illegally.

Turning to Romney, seated nearby on the ABC News debate stage, McCain said angrily, "It's not amnesty, my friend; you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won't be true."

Romney said McCain's plan, which would levy fines on those in the country illegally and require them to go to the back of the line in applying for citizenship, amounted to amnesty.

That prompted Rudolph W. Giuliani to aim a zinger at Romney, by pointing out that President Ronald Reagan had agreed to an amnesty plan for illegal immigrants. "I think he'd be in one of Mitt's negative commercials," said Giuliani, adding that "none of us has a perfect record on immigration."

McCain, whose temperament has been the subject of criticism in the past, went after Romney again with a jab at Romney's latest campaign theme: that, as a Washington outsider, he's best positioned to bring about change.

"I want to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of things, but I agree: You are the candidate of change," McCain said.

Romney called the "personal barbs" from McCain "interesting, but unnecessary." He mocked McCain's experience, saying that knowing "the Senate cloakroom better than [Obama] does" would not help the Republicans win if Obama is the Democratic nominee.

Obama has pulled even with or slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton, thanks to his Iowa victory on Thursday night. However, his post-Iowa boost does not appear to be as large as past caucus winners have received going into the first primary, a potentially hopeful sign for Clinton.

Obama and Clinton were tied at 33 per cent, followed by Edwards at 20 percent, according to a new University of New Hampshire poll for CNN and WMUR-TV of Manchester. Another survey, for the Concord Monitor newspaper, showed Obama and Clinton statistically tied, while a third, by American Research Group, an independent, New Hampshire-based polling operation, showed Obama with a substantial lead.

Among Republicans, Romney, from next-door Massachusetts, has slipped since losing Iowa to Mike Huckabee. Romney did come in first in yesterday's caucuses in Wyoming, picking up eight delegates.

McCain has benefited most from post-Iowa shifts in support. New Hampshire is a must-win for the Arizona senator, who is trying to repeat his 2000 primary victory.

McCain led Romney by six points or more, outside the polls' margin of error, in the new statewide surveys, conducted since Iowans voted.

Huckabee is running far behind the leaders in New Hampshire and appeared to have gained little in a state where the religious emphasis of his campaign is working against him.

Shifting support for the leading contenders, with two days to go until the first primary of 2007, helps explain the more contentious tone of the campaign.

The more aggressive, and personalized, rhetoric isn't the only thing the candidates have changed since Iowans reshuffled the campaign. Clinton is shifting emphasis, trying to appeal to younger voters, who helped Obama win. Huckabee, who owed his Iowa victory to a massive turnout from evangelical voters, is not talking about religion this weekend. Instead of calling himself a "Christian leader," as he did in Iowa, he's touting his record as a tax cutter as governor of Arkansas, hoping to appeal to the economic conservatives who are dominant in New Hampshire.

But Huckabee has already conceded that he won't win New Hampshire, where his background as a Baptist minister works against him.

McCain, who has spent most of his time and limited resources in this state, ended his 100th town hall meeting yesterday in Peterborough in a shower of confetti. Later, talking to reporters, he, too, put on the mantle of change.

"I'm responsible for the biggest change that has saved American lives" in Iraq, he said. "I was one of the authors of the Petraeus strategy that's working. That's the change that I'm proud of."

A McCain victory on Tuesday would scramble the Republican contest, which is more wide-open than the Democratic race.

Huckabee campaign chairman, Ed Rollins, said the nomination may not be decided until after the Texas primary, in early March.

Clinton, meanwhile, badly needs to avoid a second straight loss to Obama. "Her back's against the wall. No question about it," said Tad Devine, a non-aligned Democratic strategist.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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