By David Broder
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 7
New Hampshire voters are poised to make history by repeating history.
On the eve of the traditional first primary, polls point to a mirror image of the Republican contest of 2000 and the Democratic race four years ago.
If the results match those forecasts, Barack Obama will have followed John Kerry in securing the Democratic nomination by backing up his victory in the Iowa caucuses with a decisive win over Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson here.
Meanwhile, John McCain could once again defeat the early Republican favorite, as he did in 2000, setting up a further set of showdowns in other states. In 2000, McCain upset George W. Bush here, only to falter when the race moved to South Carolina. This year, McCain's late-rallying campaign poses a similar challenge to Mitt Romney, who planted his flag in the back yard of his Massachusetts political base and aimed, as Bush did, to become the favorite for the nomination.
Nothing is preordained, of course, because the number of undecided or lightly committed voters remains high -- especially on the Republican side of an anticipated record-high turnout. Adding tension is the uncertainty of where independent voters, who can choose either primary, will come down.
In a televised debate Sunday evening, Romney put McCain on the defensive about his opposition to Bush's 2001 tax cuts -- a throwback to the debate from that 2000 Bush-McCain campaign. Then, McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire by 18 percentage points, thanks to his big lead among independents who asked for Republican ballots.
Bush actually outpolled McCain among Republicans in 2000, and he was able to rally the party's governors and contributors to his side by discounting McCain's support from independents.
Many of those committed Republicans remain skeptical about McCain, in part because of his historic disagreements with Bush and in part because he has been in opposition to staunch conservatives on campaign finance, immigration and environmental laws.
After a disastrous early-summer slump, which left him penniless and cost him several top campaign aides, McCain went back to what had worked for him before in New Hampshire. He held more than 100 town meetings, in which he gave short speeches and answered questions for hours.
His doggedness has reminded voters why they liked him in the past, and he has been bolstered by signs of success for Bush's "surge" strategy in Iraq, which McCain long advocated.
In 2000, McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses and concentrated his campaigning on New Hampshire -- a strategy vindicated by the results. He was helped by the decision of Al Gore and Bill Bradley, the main contenders on the Democratic side, to put most of their efforts into Iowa. That left the field clear for McCain to make his appeal to New Hampshire independents.
This year, all the surveys leading into the primary indicate that most of the independents will ask for Democratic ballots -- and, as in Iowa, give their support to Obama.
The senator from Illinois is following a well-worn path in converting a strong showing in Iowa into a potentially decisive win in New Hampshire. Four years ago, it was Kerry who pulled off an upset in Iowa, coming from far back to overcome Howard Dean, the early favorite in the caucuses. Once those results registered here, Kerry surged further in New Hampshire and Dean was soon history.
Obama's first-place finish in Iowa was perhaps less of a surprise than Kerry's victory because he had been drawing big and enthusiastic crowds and had built a powerful ground organization. But Obama's margin over the former first lady was much wider than she had anticipated, and her losing second place, even narrowly, to Edwards was a further blow to the notion of her inevitable victory.
The shortness of the time gap between the traditional leadoff events in Iowa and New Hampshire -- five days, rather than twice that time, as in the past -- compounds the comeback problems for Clinton.
But the senator from New York need not go back terribly far in history to find examples of successful recoveries from Iowa defeats. In 1988, when Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri won Iowa and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis came in third, New Hampshire reversed the order of finish. And in 1992, when Sen. Tom Harkin won the Democratic caucus as a favorite son, New Hampshire divided its support between Paul Tsongas, a senator from Massachusetts, and Bill Clinton.