Little New Hampshire Could Hold Big Significance for Both Parties

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 7 -- A few months ago, New Hampshire's reputation for delivering spellbinding primary elections was in danger. But if trend lines hold, a pair of contested primaries Tuesday will deliver outcomes with potentially enormous significance.

Just months ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was building a substantial lead over Sen. Barack Obama and her other Democratic rivals. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, capitalizing on the apparent collapse of Sen. John McCain's campaign, was opening a lead in the Republican race.

Today Clinton is frantically trying to slow the momentum of a surging Obama, who rode into the state Friday morning after his victory in Iowa and has played to enormous and enthusiastic crowds. Obama has opened up a clear lead, and a second victory over Clinton would leave the New York senator's candidacy gasping for breath -- but with her advisers already determined to try to mount a comeback.

If you wanted a measure of how discombobulated her campaign has been since Iowa, look no further than the memo sent out under the name of chief strategist Mark Penn -- and reportedly approved by her inner circle of advisers -- shortly before the Democratic debate on Saturday night.

"Where is the bounce?" the e-mail subject line read. Noting two newly released polls that showed a close race in New Hampshire, Penn argued that there was no statistically significant change in the Democratic contest pre- and post-Iowa.

At the time, surveys showed the race still essentially tied, but it was clear from all evidence on the ground that Obama was moving up. Within 24 hours, the memo was rendered inoperative, as new polls showed Obama with a lead of about 10 percentage points, which is where Monday night surveys put the race.

On the Republican side, McCain is the focus -- his revived candidacy aided by disarray in the GOP field and by Romney's loss to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Now Romney's outcome may depend on whether independents, who backed McCain eight years ago, move in major numbers to the Democratic primary and Obama.

The huge crowds that have greeted the candidates here in the past four days foreshadow a potentially record turnout -- topping the 2004 Democratic primary, when 221,000 voters participated, or the 2000 Republican primary, when 239,500 did so.

"The state is as involved as it's ever been," said Tom Rath, a strategist on Romney's team. "We're going to have massive turnout."

The Republican race appeared more competitive on primary eve, but the Democratic contest holds the greater significance, if only because of what it may say about the future of the couple who gave the party consecutive White House terms for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency.

Top Clinton campaign officials and alarmed allies are braced for a defeat on Tuesday. Five days is not enough, they have argued, to slow and reverse the momentum Obama developed in Iowa. What they are looking to do is hold down his margin in New Hampshire and then try to restart the race on Wednesday, hoping to stay alive until Feb. 5, when many of the biggest states in the nation will hold primaries.

"Whatever happens tomorrow, we're going on," Clinton told CBS's Harry Smith on Monday morning. "And we're going to keep going until the end of the process on February 5th. But I've always felt that this is going to be a very tough, hard-fought election, and I'm ready for that."

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