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She Lives

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Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) addresses her supporters after the New Hampshire primary election results filter in. Video by AP, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

HOOKSETT, N.H., Jan. 8

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"I come here tonight with a very full heart," Hillary Rodham Clinton told a gym full of screaming and chanting supporters here a few minutes after 11 p.m. Tuesday. The unexpected victor in the New Hampshire primary, she vowed to "give America the kind of comeback New Hampshire has just given me."

In truth, it wasn't as much a comeback as a return from the political dead.

Even her own aides had seemed to believe the worst. They had booked the big gymnasium here at Southern New Hampshire University -- the same spot Howard Dean filled in 2004 -- and put the numerals "20:08" on the time clock and the words "Hillary" and "Clinton" in the home and away spots. But instead, they decided to hold the event next door, in a dank auxiliary gym half the size -- an irresistible metaphor for a dying campaign -- and the crowd of 400 was too small to fill the place.

But then, a few minutes after the polls closed, CNN broadcast an unexpected announcement: The candidate was not, in fact, deceased. It was, the cable network announced, a "close race" -- and the numbers crawling at the bottom of the screen even showed an early, narrow Clinton lead.

Fair-weather supporters rushed to join the party, and reporters, their Clinton obituaries already filed, hurried over from their hotel rooms. Finally, 2 1/2 hours later, the CNN broadcast made it official: The presumed-dead candidate had, in fact, won the New Hampshire primary. The wake thus terminated, Clinton aides and supporters screamed and danced, waving "Clinton Country" placards for the cameras.

Tom Thompson and his brother were in the middle of the celebration. "If you asked me last night, I would've said Obama's a lock," confided Tom, wearing a button of President Bush and the words "Good Riddance." But now, he said, "I'm loving every second of it."

It was not supposed to be this way. A Gallup poll released on the eve of the election showed her trailing Barack Obama, the buoyant winner of the Iowa caucuses, by 13 points. Reporters wondered if the margin would be even higher, and Democratic operatives began to hatch ways to nudge her gently out of the race.

Against those expectations, even a narrow defeat would have been a soaring victory for the new comeback kid -- and Clinton aides were ready to celebrate their victory over expectations.

At about 8:30 p.m., Phil Singer, Clinton's peripatetic spokesman, began to circulate in the gym, looking giddy.

"I'm not giddy," he said, smiling. "I had several beers before I came over."


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