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New Hampshire's nay-sayers

The New Hampshire primary can be cruel — just ask supporters of the late Sen. Edmund Muskie whose 1972 campaign for president was undone by a speech he made outside the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader. On Tuesday, Granite State voters get a chance to punch above their Lilliputian weight class again — with at least two big-time Gullivers seemingly teed up for action.

The most obvious candidate is Hillary Clinton who was never expected to win New Hampshire (although she did so eight years ago) but would clearly like to avoid a rout. Most recent polls suggest Sen. Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont leads Ms. Clinton by 15 percentage points or so. If that number expands, it surely won't represent a knock-out blow, but momentum will be firmly on Senator Sanders' side as the campaign swings south.

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The other target comes as something of a surprise and might actually represent a do-or-die moment in the campaign. Prior to the weekend, Sen. Marco Rubio looked to be on the rise thanks to a stronger-than-expected third place showing in the Iowa Republican caucus. Yet all that changed Saturday when during a debate at Saint Anselm College a testy exchange between Senator Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made the Florida senator look like some sort of pre-programmed automaton.

What was Mr. Rubio's crime? He trotted out what was clearly a canned answer to a question about his relative inexperience as a first-term senator and how that was similar to President Barack Obama. Here's how the key passage started: "Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country to make America more like the rest of the world." After Governor Christie chided him for not being involved in any decision of consequence, Mr. Rubio spoke of New Jersey's debt problem but then started down the same path he had just trod, nearly word for word, with "Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama…"

That's when Mr. Christie pounced on the "memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him," and the damage was done. In his response, Senator Rubio hit Christie on New Jersey snow removal before launching into the same point about Mr. Obama expressed exactly the same way for a third time: "This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing…" That was the killer. (Although the syntax was slightly improved; "dispel" or "dispense with," Mr. Rubio; pick one.) Mr. Christie pointed out Mr. Rubio was reciting speeches again, and what might have been excused as brain freeze turned into a Mr. Roboto moment that lit up the Twitterverse.

Polls had Senator Rubio potentially finishing second behind Donald Trump. Now, he might be satisfied with third or even fourth.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder how New Hampshire women are reacting to the latest criticisms from the Clinton camp that Senator Sanders' supporters — the so-called "Berniebros" — have engaged in sexist attacks. Former President Bill Clinton has helped lead the charge against the "crude, sexist" language found on the Internet, something Senator Sanders has disavowed.

But perhaps even more curious were the comments made last week by two feminists icons who, in separate incidents, seemed appalled that women might be supporting Mr. Sanders when there was an opportunity to vote for an actual female candidate. "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," was how Madeline Albright, the first female secretary of state, put it. Gloria Steinem, went even further when asked to explain this phenomenon: "When you're young, you're thinking, 'Where are the boys?' The boys are with Bernie."

Needless to say, both comments proved controversial, but the women have a point in this regard: One of the mysteries of the American electorate is why female voters aren't more excited about the opportunity to elect the first woman president, Democrat or Republican. Not that some voters aren't, but the level of support in no way matches what Mr. Obama experienced as a candidate when he held out the promise to become the first African American president eight years ago. New Hampshire results might change that — or not. In either event, it may be time to dispel the notion that New Hampshire voters don't know exactly what they're doing, whatever that might turn out to be.

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