By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
HOOKSETT, N.H., Jan. 8
"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."
Prematurely drowning his sorrow?
"No comment," the spokesman answered, and then he allowed himself to savor the moment. "People were writing her obituary -- I read it several times this morning," he exulted.
Her advisers in recent days seemed to be feeling their way through the five stages of grief, spending most of their time in the denial and anger phases. "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen!" Bill Clinton, employing his famous squint and finger point, said of Obama on Monday.
Hillary Clinton herself seemed to be grieving in a particularly poignant and public way. The day before the election, when a woman from Portsmouth asked her, innocently, about how she gets out of the house in the morning, Clinton choked up and tears formed. "This is very personal for me," she said. "It's not just political."
As supporters waited for the doors to open here Tuesday evening, televisions in the gym disbursed the conventional wisdom about Obama's triumph. "We haven't had anything like this since maybe Bobby Kennedy," said Jack Cafferty. "Might she shake up her campaign?" asked Wolf Blitzer. "This is a tidal wave" for Obama, said Donna Brazile. "This is a tidal wave that will not be stopped after tonight."
And yet, in the hallway outside, waiting to enter, the Clinton faithful continued to hope. First in line: Phil Luber from Acton, Mass., wearing a Clinton button and waiting 2 1/2 hours to get in. "I spent much of last night with my wife, railing at the television" as correspondents forecast an Obama victory, he said.
The crowd hadn't even been let in the room when the early returns began to appear on television. But word filtered into the hallway, and a muffled cheer could be heard in the gym after the words "close race" appeared.
"As of this afternoon, I thought it was going to be Obama by 10," said Bill Thompson, one of the first Clinton supporters in the room.
At that moment, CNN flashed a graphic showing Clinton ahead by 40 percent to 36 percent. The crowd cheered. "Wow, look at that!" marveled Tom Thompson.
A late wave of exit polls began to filter through the assembled reporters, standing on and around risers in the back of the gym. The new numbers: A slim 39 to 38 Obama lead. Reporters looked at one another and shrugged.
Young Clinton aides, no longer grieving, lurched back into autocratic mode, ordering reporters to keep away from the supporters in the room, who were glued to CNN on the big screen, the volume turned up loud. They cheered for Blitzer at 9:25 p.m. as he read out a 39 to 37 lead for Clinton with 42 percent of the precincts in. They grew silent when Gloria Borger said that Clinton aides were "nervous" because Obama-friendly college towns had not yet reported. They cheered anew when Borger announced that women were turning out for Clinton in large numbers.
By 10 p.m., the crowd of about 400 had doubled. They watched CNN as if viewing a football game. Clinton up, 47 to 34, among women: Big cheer. Obama up, 42 to 30, among men: boos. Clinton up, 45 to 33, among Democrats: cheers. Obama up, 41 to 34, among independents: More boos. CNN then went live to the Clinton crowd, and they responded with chants of "Hillary! Hillary!" and "Comeback Kid!"
Nearby, Jay Carson, a young Clinton aide, newly in demand, spoke with NBC's Andrea Mitchell on the camera risers. "Yesterday, the Drudge Report was doing a death watch for when she'd drop out," he exulted. "This morning, the reports were about who's going to be fired."
Soon surrounded by reporters, Carson continued his celebration. "There were no shortage of people ready to declare us dead," he said, acknowledging that he was preparing to be a pallbearer himself. "I felt the same thing when I woke up this morning," he said.