MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The January thaw reached way up the East coast yesterday but it wasn't enough to melt the icy tone of the presidential contest in New Hampshire.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, struggling to avoid falling farther behind Sen. Barack Obama, unveiled a new theme in the closing hours of the primary campaign. Calling herself "a doer, not a talker," she accused Obama of breaking a campaign promise by voting to fund the war in Iraq, votes that Clinton has also cast.
Obama's lead has widened to double-digit margins ahead of tomorrow's primary, according to a fresh round of polls. Clinton's campaign began lowering expectations in a state where, not long ago, she led by more than 20 percentage points. Clinton and her aides are trying to prevent any impression that the race for the nomination is over if Obama takes New Hampshire after winning Iowa last week. Four years ago, John Kerry's back-to-back triumphs in those two contests helped him sweep to the Democratic nomination.
If Clinton loses badly here, her quest for the presidency could effectively be over in a matter of weeks. This year, for the first time, more than half the states will have voted by Feb. 5.
"The New Hampshire primary was always intended to be first in the nation, not last in the nation," said Kathy Sullivan, Clinton's state co-chairman. "I think it's important for people across the country to have their say in this process."
The Clinton official's comments, in a conference call with reporters, came one day after New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine, campaigning for Clinton in Nevada, told Clinton volunteers that "we're not too sure about New Hampshire. But there are firewalls along the way. Nevada has to be a firewall."
Nevada's caucuses, on Jan. 19, are the next party-sanctioned contest after New Hampshire. Obama had narrowed Clinton's advantage there, even before his Iowa victory last week, polls show. He also is increasingly well-positioned to defeat her in South Carolina's primary at the end of the month, where black voters will play a major role for the first time this year.
Yesterday, former Sen. Bill Bradley, who lost to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, endorsed Obama, whose lead in New Hampshire is now outside the margin of polling error.
Both Clinton and John Edwards are losing support, according to the University of New Hampshire survey for CNN and WMUR-TV of Manchester, which showed Obama with 39 percent to Clinton's 29 percent. A Gallup/USA Today poll, also released last night, showed Obama with a 13-point lead.
Edwards, third with 16 percent, announced that he'd take his campaign all the way to the Democratic convention, regardless of how he finishes tomorrow. But he is unlikely to be a significant factor unless the Obama-Clinton competition for convention delegates remains close.
Meanwhile, the leading Republican candidates met last night in a televised debate, with polls suggesting a much closer contest than the Democratic race.
Mitt Romney, the target of attacks from his rivals in a Saturday night debate, seized the initiative. He accused John McCain and Mike Huckabee of lacking commitment to cut taxes, while defending his own record as Massachusetts governor.
McCain, who had responded heatedly, and personally, against Romney the previous night, was much more subdued.
"I'm running a positive campaign," said McCain, who declined to respond after Fox News Channel, the debate sponsor, showed one of Romney's attack ads against McCain.
Huckabee and Romney tangled repeatedly over their records as governors. After Huckabee said that Romney had increased fees by a half-billion dollars, Romney retorted, "Mike, you make up facts faster than you talk, and that's saying something." Romney said the actual figure was closer to $250 million.
Then, he repeatedly pressed Huckabee to concede that he raised taxes, "net net," as Arkansas governor. Huckabee ducked.
The two also sparred over economic populism, and Huckabee's line that he didn't want to be a president who reminded people of someone who laid them off. Some have seen that as a dig at Romney, who made a fortune as a venture capitalist.
"You're not going to help the wage earner in America by attacking the wage payer in America," said Romney, who touted his experience as a decision-maker in business. "We also need a president who knows how to shrink the federal government. And I know how to take out people who aren't needed and take out programs that aren't needed."
Romney said that serving in an executive position as a governor was better preparation for the presidency than being a senator.
The CNN/WMUR survey showed McCain leading Romney by 32 percent to 26 percent. Huckabee, the Iowa victor, was third with 14 percent, moving ahead of Fred Thompson, who dropped to 11 percent. Ron Paul was next with 10 percent. In the Gallup/USA Today survey, McCain's lead was only four percentage points.