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An unsettled contest

The Baltimore Sun

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's victory in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary was born of two forces - a sympathetic turn by voters, particularly women, who tired of seeing her attacked; and a political organization focused on her experience and economic concerns.

Campaign activists suggest that the election shifted, at first imperceptibly, in Saturday night's debate when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards ganged up on her, and when Clinton was faced with another blunt question about her likability.

The shift became more noticeable Monday, when Clinton momentarily welled with tears - though she did not go off-message - at a gathering on the campaign's closing day. Television pictures of the event were broadcast endlessly through Tuesday.

"It made her seem like a person getting picked on, and she responded the way a real person would," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire poll.

That rare break in the New York senator's composure - and the chord it struck in voters - was particularly compelling to women, whose abandonment of her in the Iowa caucus led to Obama's striking victory there. Throughout the week, the same voters had watched as the win by Obama in mostly white Iowa was greeted as a cultural breakthrough.

"Women got their backs up in New Hampshire and said, 'Hey, wait a minute, our candidate is historic too,'" said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist. "'It's not just Obama; what about Hillary?'"

The symbolism dovetailed with an efficient campaign organization, years in the making, that pressed its voters to the polls. In one working-class ward in Manchester, 78 percent of voters turned up. Exit polls showed that Clinton ran up huge advantages among voters on the poorer end of the economic scale and those who fear they are falling behind.

Scala and others noted that Clinton won working-class cities as well as the suburbs of southern New Hampshire around Manchester and Nashua.

Clinton was the establishment candidate in New Hampshire, and her success stemmed, in part, from the state's peculiar political topography. A state of 1.3 million people, it has 400 state representatives and 24 state senators, serving for a $100 annual stipend and gas money.

Yesterday, Kathy Sullivan, former chair of the state Democratic Party and the co-chair of Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, recalled walking into the Manchester headquarters recently and seeing two executive counselors - the equivalent of county supervisors - two state senators and two state representatives, all making phone calls for Clinton.

"Someone said to me, "If Hillary loses, is that a rejection of the political establishment?'" Sullivan said. "What people don't understand is that in New Hampshire our Legislature is so large, these are people out there in the community. They're not like distant establishment figures we never see. They live right next door."

Pressure was coming not only from next door but also from the wallet. As national pundits talked of the historic significance of Obama's surge in statewide polls, voters were thinking of something else: their economic fears.

With the stock market tumbling, the dollar falling, mortgages going belly up, gas and health care costs rising, Clinton hammered at voters' concerns about the economy, trumping Obama's discourses on national unity.

"These are such bread-and-butter issues, and people saw Hillary talking about the economy, about the need to create jobs, about the cost of fuel, about the loss of manufacturing jobs," Sullivan said. "She talked about all those economic issues in a very detailed way. People responded to that."

She also won support by sharpening her message of experience into concrete terms, casting herself as a doer competing against Obama's image as an eloquent talker. Former President Bill Clinton also campaigned steadily for his wife in New Hampshire and fine-tuned his stump speech to focus on her accomplishments.

It also appeared, based on exit polling by Edison/Mitofsky for the television networks and the Associated Press, that Hillary Clinton's argument that she is the most experienced Democrat in the field contributed to her victory. She was backed by 71 percent of Democratic voters in New Hampshire for whom experience was the most important quality; these voters made up 19 percent of those surveyed.

But it might not have been enough were it not for the turns in the campaign's last 72 hours.

On Saturday, the Democrats met for a debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester. Clinton, rocked by her third-place finish in Iowa, shrugged off her above-the-fray demeanor in past debates and portrayed Obama as a flip-flopper. Obama took on her typical role. Most important, Edwards accused Clinton of changing her tune on Obama because she was losing.

A short time later, questioner Scott Spradling, political director for Manchester's WMUR-TV, asked Clinton what she was going to do about voters who hesitated to side with her "on the likability issue" and were supporting Obama.

"Well, that hurts my feelings," Clinton said, to audience laughter.

The exchange did not come across as an insult; Clinton a day later signed a card bearing Spradling's question: "Scott, you are likable. Thanks. Hillary."

But the debate appeared to have softened voters' views of her. Two days later, when a gentle question from a woman in a coffee shop - "How do you do it?" - brought a noticeable sheen to Clinton's eyes, they paid attention. A candidate who has long been criticized as robotic had become human, strategists said.

"These events touched a special nerve and chord - for every woman who has ever earned less than a man in the workplace, who has ever been denied a promotion, or who has failed to receive credit for her work, this struck an important and human note," pollster Peter Hart said in an e-mail titled "Making Sense of New Hampshire." "Suddenly, Hillary Clinton became a vehicle for their lives."

Cathleen Decker and Mark Z. Barabak write for the Los Angeles Times.

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