By Bob Benenson
Hillary Clinton found a new political ally in New Hampshire: the expectations game, which had betrayed her badly just five days earlier in Iowa.
Who would have thought that Clinton — former first lady, New York senator, front-runner in the national polls — would be able to declare a low-single-digit victory margin over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary as a glorious comeback? But she was able to do so because so much of the post-Iowa punditry portrayed her loss there not as a setback, but the beginning of the end of her campaign.
This was reinforced by dozens of news reports from numerous outlets that focused on the momentum that the charismatic, rhetorically gifted Obama was generating on the New Hampshire campaign trail — and polling that was unusually uniform in missing the mark. Not only did most surveys show Obama winning, but it appeared on primary eve that he would cruise to a comfortable margin.
One of the hottest stories on the news and political Web throughout the day Tuesday was of an imminent major shakeup in Clinton’s campaign, which would come on the heels of her virtually certain loss in New Hampshire.
Obama remains a formidable opponent, and Clinton faces some serious risks ahead. She almost certainly will net a default win in Michigan’s bollixed Jan. 15 primary — she’s the only major candidate on the ballot in a contest banished by the Democratic National Committee because it violates national party scheduling rules. But the next round after that is the caucus event in Nevada on Jan. 19; the relatively low turnout for caucuses, as Iowa proved, makes establishment candidate Clinton potentially more vulnerable to Obama and his highly motivated activist backers.
Then the campaign moves to South Carolina on Jan. 26, where she has significant organizational support, but where Obama may appeal strongly to the large African-American Democratic constituency, and where former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, born in South Carolina, will be striving to rescue his campaign after a distant third-place finish in New Hampshire.
With different candidates winning Iowa and New Hampshire in both parties, it might just be best to expect the unexpected in the upcoming contests.
New Hampshire winner John McCain – whose 2008 presidential bid seemed doomed just weeks ago by major money and organizational problems – gloried Tuesday night in defying expectations by topping top rival former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by a comfortable margin (with 86 percent of precincts counted, 37 percent for McCain, 32 percent for Romney).
McCain opened his victory speech with a riff on Democrat Bill Clinton’s declaration in 1992 that his second-place finish in that year’s New Hampshire primary – after a personal scandal threatened to sink his campaign – made him the “Comeback Kid.”
“I’m past the age where I can claim the noun ‘kid,’ no matter what adjective precedes this,” said McCain, who turns 72 in August and would be the oldest president at the time of his first election. “But tonight, we sure showed them what a comeback looks like.”
McCain, whose support is tied greatly to his image as a “straight talker,” continued, “When they asked, how you going to do that, you’re down in the polls, I answered, ‘I’m going to go to New Hampshire, and I’m going to tell people the truth.'”
McCain had reason to keep the faith that New Hampshire – where independents can vote in either party’s primary – would boost him back into contention. He scored a big upset in the state’s 2000 GOP primary over the national front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, setting off a brief but bitterly fought contest in which Bush prevailed en route to his first term in the White House.