Conventional Wisdom Hits the Reset Button

By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

An official Washington that only days ago was swept up in Obamamania began grappling last night with a Democratic primary fight that is looking like a long, extended battle between the Barack Obama phenomenon and a slow, steady and strong Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton's unexpected victory in New Hampshire brought her once-reticent supporters out in droves. But no one was about to claim the mantle of front-runner.

"Both campaigns are going to pull every tool out of the toolbox, especially now that we'll have almost two weeks until voters go back to the voting booths," said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), a Clinton supporter. "This is going to end up being quite a contest before it's all over."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last night's surprising results echoed Clinton's 2000 Senate race, in which she went into the final weekend ahead of her opponent, Republican Rick Lazio, by only a few percentage points. "You can never, never, never count Hillary Clinton out," he said. Clinton went on to win the race by 12 points.

Paul Begala, a Clinton supporter who advised her husband's campaigns in the 1990s, said elections come down to pivotal moments, and the two that will be remembered out of New Hampshire showed voters a more human side of Clinton -- and a less graceful side of Obama.

The first came in Saturday night's debate, when a moderator told the former first lady that, according to polls, New Hampshire residents just don't like her. She responded with a dimpled smile, coupled with, "That hurts my feelings." The camera then shifted to Obama, who offered that Clinton was "likable enough."

"He looked like an ex-husband that was turning over the alimony check," Begala said.

The other moment was Clinton's teary-eyed confession to a group of New Hampshire women that the pressure and attacks do sometimes get to her. Even the response from conservative pundits -- that Clinton had contrived her breaking voice and moist eyes -- worked to her advantage, underscoring just how much she has had to bear as her enemies relentlessly attack, supporters said.

There is a law of physics in politics, Begala said, referring to the remarkable emergence and fiery explosion of presidential campaigns from Ross Perot to Gary Hart to Howard Dean: "The angle of ascent is equal to the angle of descent."

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who worked with Clinton in the White House but serves with Obama in Chicago's congressional delegation, said last night that nobody should be surprised Clinton had come back, but anybody who predicted it was just guessing. The race is that close.

But he took heart in the energy that emerged for both candidates -- tens of thousands more voters came out to vote for a Democrat yesterday than voted for a Republican.

"Energy is what matters, and Democrats have the energy," he said.

Supporters in Nevada, which holds a caucus Jan. 19, remained upbeat about the former first lady's prospects in a state her husband tended to in the White House, refusing to allow nuclear waste to be stored outside Las Vegas during his administration.

"We think we're well-positioned here. We have some time for people to compare them," said Rory Reid, the chairman of her Silver State campaign and son of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "We think we can compete," Reid said.

While the elder Reid has remained officially neutral, the younger Reid has marshaled a large chunk of support from other state Democratic leaders. However, reports this week suggested that the most important union in the state, the Culinary Union, which runs the largest casinos, would soon endorse Obama.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company