Obama's Rise Dismays Clinton's Supporters

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

MILFORD, N.H. -- The pillars of the New Hampshire Democratic establishment had filled the front tables at the party's annual dinner Friday night, the better to applaud enthusiastically when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, their overwhelming choice for president, talked about her readiness to lead.

But when Sen. Barack Obama took the stage, hundreds of Obama supporters swarmed the front of the hall, surrounding their tables and sending people such as Beverly Hollingworth to the exits.

"I'm really worried about him," said Hollingworth, a member of the state's Executive Council and a former state senator, as she headed for the door. "Other people have been working their whole life for change, and have made good progress. This is just rhetoric."

With the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, Obama is riding a very big wave, spreading consternation and bewilderment through the ranks of Clinton supporters here struggling to make sense of what is unfolding before them.

For months, Clinton campaign officials have assumed New Hampshire could play the same role for her that it did for Bill Clinton in 1992, when his comeback in his first primary ignited his campaign. Yet across the state, Obama is drawing crowds that are double and triple the size of Clinton's.

In Nashua on Saturday, 3,000 people jammed a high school gym, with many in an overflow room. About the same time, a crowd about a quarter that size, according to the local fire department, was at a Clinton event in Concord.

The contrast in the tone and substance of the candidates' events is even starker. Obama has infused his stump speech with a new air of assurance, telling his huge crowds that the movement of national reconciliation he has been calling for -- "turning the page" for a "working majority" -- is now underway, with Iowa as evidence. "New Hampshire, it is your turn to change America," he declares.

Clinton is sticking with her experience argument, telling voters that she is the candidate most able to take charge on the first day in office and to absorb Republican attacks in a general election. In Concord, she dispensed with her stump speech and instead took questions from the audience for nearly two hours, showing a policy command that several voters later said won them over.

Her supporters are placing hope in history: New Hampshire's tendency to assert itself every few years by rejecting the preference of voters in Iowa. They argue that the Iowa caucuses, with their public declarations of preference and last-minute vote-switching, are ideal for a movement candidate such as Obama. New Hampshire voters, they argue, are able to make their judgments in privacy and with greater thoughtfulness.

"New Hampshire is pragmatic. I hear everyone talk about change, but we need a strong hand to get us back on track," said Ann Martin, a federal employee who turned out at an airplane hangar in Nashua on Friday to welcome Clinton back from Iowa. "New Hampshire isn't attracted by a flash in the pan."

There are signs, though, that the momentum that Obama has here is not simply a function of his Iowa victory. Even before Iowa, Obama had closed to within a few points of Clinton in some polls after being behind more than 20 points in September.

Political scientists attributed his rise partly to the changing demographics of the state: New Hampshire, unlike the rest of New England, has undergone significant growth in the past decade, with nearly a quarter of its eligible voters new since 2000, the year Al Gore, the establishment candidate then as Clinton is now, withstood a challenge by former senator Bill Bradley, who appealed to a similar group of voters as Obama.

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