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Tale of women, independents

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The night of the living dead in New Hampshire was the dawn of a new campaign.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, once written off as primary losers, resurrected their candidacies last night and set the presidential race on a new, potentially longer course that few would have predicted.

Clinton's comeback, even more astonishing than her husband's in 1992, when he finished second, reshaped a Democratic contest in which Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had begun to look unstoppable.

New Hampshire's independent and unpredictable voters also made a strong contender out of McCain, who completed an improbable personal recovery in a state he first carried in 2000. His victory means that the Republican campaign, which remains highly fluid, could take weeks, or longer, to sort out.

But it was Clinton's triumph, which took a sledgehammer to Obama's momentum, that was the story of the night. After election-eve polls showed Obama winning by double-digit margins, the New Hampshire vote thrilled supporters of Clinton, who had seemingly given up and was already signaling plans to launch a last-ditch fight to stop Obama from wrapping up the race on Feb. 5.

There were indications, in exit poll results and late polling, that independent voters, who can choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot on primary day, might have shifted to McCain in the belief that Obama was safely ahead. Also, a highly publicized and extremely emotional moment on the day before the election, when Clinton choked up at meeting with undecided voters at a cafe, might turn out to have been a turning point.

Clinton sought to make it that in her victory speech thanking the state's voters.

"Over the last week I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice," she said. "I felt like we all spoke from our hearts, and I am so gratified that you responded.

The episode may have helped to humanize the New York senator and perhaps generated sympathy, especially among women, who swung behind her. Clinton defeated Obama among women by a margin of 47 percent to 34 percent and by an even larger percentage among women without children, according to network exit polling.

The abrupt disappearance of Obama's apparent lead may indicate that voters were not telling pollsters the truth, something that often has happened in contests involving a black candidate. Or New Hampshire voters may have been sending a message that they did not want the race to end quickly.

Obama, in his concession speech, acknowledged that voters had been asked to "pause for a reality check" by Clinton.

"We know the battle ahead will be long," he said, congratulating the winner but rejecting her argument that he isn't ready to lead.

Meanwhile, McCain kept his presidential chances alive.

His campaign had imploded last spring, and some had predicted that the Arizona senator would be out of the race by now. Instead, he pulled himself back into contention and put himself on a clear, if tortuous, path to the Republican nomination.

Getting there won't be easy. He faces difficult tests against different rivals over the next three weeks.

If he prevails, he'll enter the big round of Feb. 5 primaries as the clear front-runner. If he falters, the Republican race could stretch far beyond where most of the experts had expected. That would make later primaries, including Maryland's on Feb. 12, unexpectedly important.

McCain's war-hero image, his reputation as a leader on national security issues and his longtime connection to Granite State voters were keys to his victory, built on months of hand-to-hand contact with voters at town hall meetings and small gatherings over the past six months.

An Election Day survey of voters as they left polling places showed that McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was viewed as best qualified to be commander in chief. Better news out of Iraq also helped McCain, a leading proponent of the U.S. military surge, shred the campaign strategy of Mitt Romney, from neighboring Massachusetts.

Romney, the best financed Republican candidate, lost again, despite outspending McCain by roughly 3 to 1. After back-to-back defeats in contests he once was favored to win, he badly needs to win next week's Michigan primary.

Yesterday's vote was a close copy of McCain's 2000 upset victory in New Hampshire. He carried independent voters and registered Republicans, the exit poll showed, as he did eight years ago against George W. Bush.

"What has been missing in John's campaign has been electability. It's been a question mark: 'Well, has his time passed?'" said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a McCain supporter. Now, "that question mark is removed."

Winning will also attract much-needed campaign funds heading into Michigan, where Romney was born and his father served as governor.

Independent voters could help McCain there, as they did in his victory over Bush eight years ago, because the Democratic primary is a one-sided affair, with Obama and John Edwards not on the ballot.

Then comes South Carolina, where Bush tripped up McCain in a nasty battle last time. His advisers insist that McCain is much better prepared there now, with Graham and other top officials leading his campaign.

However, Mike Huckabee, the Iowa victor, could be difficult to dislodge in a state where evangelical Christian voters dominate Republican politics.

Unlike Iowa, where religious conservatives cast a majority of the Republican vote, only one in five New Hampshire voters identified themselves as evangelicals, and he finished far back in third place.

At Huckabee's elbow on election night in New Hampshire was David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor with close ties to religious and social conservatives.

McCain will attempt to rally military veterans and establishment Republicans in South Carolina, perhaps with the help of Fred Thompson, his national campaign co-chairman in 2000, who got just one percent in New Hampshire. The former Tennessee senator may face new pressure to withdraw and endorse McCain.

The New Hampshire results were bad news for Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has based his campaign on tough talk about fighting terrorism. The former New York mayor was in a close race with Ron Paul for fourth, despite spending millions on campaign ads that ran right up until Election Day.

Giuliani is hoping to salvage his campaign by winning Florida, on Jan 29, where Huckabee will likely be a major factor.

Giuliani has spent more time and money in Florida than his rivals, and he'll be campaigning there while they are in Michigan and South Carolina. Last night, he called New Hampshire "the kickoff of what is going to be a long and very tough game."

For Democrats, the campaign shifts to more favorable terrain for Obama, who would be the first black nominee of a major party.

He and Clinton will face off in next week's caucuses in Nevada, where he's reportedly getting powerful new help from organized labor, and the South Carolina primary, where black voters could give him the edge.

Obama may also begin responding to Clinton's challenge with a series of speeches and position papers that spell out his agenda in greater detail.

Clinton, meanwhile, will have more time to question Obama's preparedness for the presidency, which she didn't have in the tightest interval ever between Iowa and New Hampshire.

Edwards, the third-place Democrat, vowed to go on. He ran far behind the leaders, but, because he is accepting public matching funds, he'll have the resources to continue at least through his native South Carolina, which he won four years ago against John Kerry.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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