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Running Into a Head Wind

Mitt Romney and Hillary Rodham Clinton
Mitt Romney and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Lm Otero - AP)
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By Robert D. Novak
Monday, January 7, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney and Sen. Hillary Clinton wanted to use Saturday night's televised presidential debates to further their respective goals: keep Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama from winning Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Neither accomplished that mission, but the failure is much more damaging for Romney than for Clinton.

Romney looks like a clear loser of the state's Republican primary to McCain, which his once-promising campaign can hardly afford on top of his decisive loss in Iowa's caucuses last week. While Clinton cannot come close to matching the fervor of Obama's supporters, polls still show a close race on the Democratic side. Despite her embarrassing third-place finish in Iowa, Clinton can withstand another defeat without dooming her once-certain procession to the nomination.

The Romney and Clinton strategies were clear. Romney, who arrived here from Iowa early Friday morning, challenged McCain's Republican credentials on taxation and immigration. By opposing George W. Bush's tax cuts and supporting the president's immigration reform proposal, McCain had taken two positions unpopular with New Hampshire Republicans. Clinton confronted the fervor for Obama by contending the 46-year-old Illinois senator lacks experience and by attacking his failure to propose mandatory universal health care -- tactics that proved to be of no avail in Iowa.

But it is difficult for a candidate to shape the agenda of multi-candidate debates, and Romney failed Saturday night. The moderator, ABC's Charles Gibson, did not raise the tax issue, and Romney never managed to bring it up on his own. Immigration persisted as a debate topic, with Romney accusing McCain of advocating amnesty for illegal aliens. That represented a divided opinion in the Romney camp, with internal dissenters arguing that taking a hard line on immigration had not worked in Iowa.

Romney opened fire upon arriving here by declaring that McCain could hardly meet the national demand for "change" in Washington because he actually is Washington. McCain's reputation as an insurgent, Romney told me Saturday, was won by "sticking it to his own party."

That theme was driven home to voters in a heavy Romney television buy. His ad run during the weekend's NFL playoff games attacked McCain for trying to deprive ordinary Americans of the Bush tax cuts and to foist immigration amnesty on them.

Having lost badly in Iowa to Mike Huckabee's evangelicals, Romney found himself confronted with McCain in non-evangelical New Hampshire. Since McCain hardly campaigned in Iowa and Huckabee is not a factor in New Hampshire, Romney felt himself the victim of a political tag-team match. (However, old political pro Ed Rollins, who is Huckabee's national chairman and who predicted his candidate's big win in Iowa, claims Romney is in free fall and could finish behind Huckabee here.) Indeed, Romney was surrounded during Saturday's debate, with McCain and Huckabee on the friendliest of terms with each other and Rudy Giuliani pitching in against Romney on immigration.

Clinton sounded her anti-Obama message beginning Friday morning. But she was battling Obamamania, with huge crowds attending his appearances and Obama supporters dominating even Friday night's annual state Democratic fundraising dinner. While Obama is eloquent and inspirational, Clinton plows on humorlessly with her "five-point" resolutions.

Clinton did try to lighten the Saturday night debate by taking mock offense at a question describing her as "unlikable." In fact, that is precisely the phrase used to describe her by local supporters, who are gloomy about her prospects Tuesday no matter how close the polls show the race to be.

The debate was as difficult for Clinton as it was for Romney. Following her script that Obama could not be trusted, Clinton quoted an alleged Associated Press crack that Obama "could have had a pretty good debate with himself." In fact, the AP was quoting a Clinton supporter.

Instead of being the anointed leader of her party, Hillary Clinton goes into the first presidential primary after being isolated in Saturday night's debate, with Obama and John Edwards seeming to gang up on her. When a questioner noted this, the senator responded with what has become a trademark cackle. It has proved a much more difficult campaign than she ever dreamed.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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