MANCHESTER, N.H. – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton narrowly won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, a surprise victory for the one-time Democratic front-runner that revived her sagging fortunes and reshaped yet again the fight for the party’s presidential nomination.
“Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice,” Clinton said at her victory rally, embracing a newly emotional campaign style that appeared to fuel her turnaround here. “Let’s give America the kind of comeback New Hampshire has just given me.”
Sen. Barack Obama, who had anticipated a second consecutive win after his Iowa caucus triumph last Thursday night, conceded shortly before 11 p.m. “We always knew our climb would be steep,” Obama told supporters, a day after he had confidently told backers he was “riding a wave” to a win here. Former Sen. John Edwards placed a distant third, followed by Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Clinton, defying all predictions that she would be swamped by Obama, proclaimed herself the latest comeback candidate to emerge from New Hampshire. Her last-minute surge mirrored the late resurgence here by her husband 16 years earlier, when he placed second in the state, and came as a shock even to her own campaign staff, who credited the candidate herself with pushing through to victory even as her campaign apparatus listed.
But the Clinton campaign wasted no time embracing its newfound success. Even before the outcome was official, Clinton advisers boasted that the Obama “wave has crested.”
The news for the Clinton camp was not merely that its candidate scored an unexpected victory. Emerging from that win was something more durable: a road map that could guide the former first lady to her party’s presidential nomination.
The margin in the New Hampshire primary was close. But she clearly beat Barack Obama among core Democratic voters – the very voting bloc that will grow in influence as the nomination fight continues.
Strip away the independents who made up about four in 10 participants Tuesday, thanks to the state’s open-balloting rules, and Clinton outpaced Obama among registered Democrats, 43 percent to 32 percent, according to an exit poll conducted for a media consortium.
Moreover, she beat the Illinois senator among women – a crucial group for her and one that she lost in last week’s Iowa caucuses – as well as among lower-income households and older voters.
“This is an amazing comeback story for her over the course of a relatively few days,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who advised Sen. John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “It would seem to indicate that she has the ability to remobilize her constituents.”
Obama advisers, meanwhile, were left struggling to explain why the momentum they sensed on the ground and in polls over the past five days did not translate into more votes.
“For most of this campaign we were far behind, we always knew our climb would be steep. But in record numbers, you came out, and you spoke out for change,” Obama said, after publicly congratulating Clinton on her victory. Before his remarks were finished, he had already started looking ahead to the next two contests, adding lines about immigrants, in a nod to Nevada’s heavily Hispanic population, and textile workers, a beleaguered constituency of South Carolina.
Edwards, D-N.C., his hopes of continuing an upward trajectory dashed, pledged to carry on with his campaign. “Two races down, 48 states left to go,” Edwards said during a rally after the polling stations closed. He has vowed to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention.
Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn, who had been under fire after the Iowa loss, credited the candidate for drawing sharper distinctions between herself and Obama after she got up and running in New Hampshire. “As voters began to see the choice they have and heard Hillary speak from the heart, they came back to her,” Penn said.
Yet no one in Clinton’s camp, including Penn, had publicly projected a tight race here ahead of time. Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson said it was the candidate herself who reported feeling the tide turn after the debate at St. Anselm College. Clinton “said she felt the momentum shift out on the stump” at various town hall meetings and rallies, Wolfson said.
“The other thing is, she worked her heart out,” Wolfson said. “She was up at the crack of dawn, out until late. She took every question.”
With a tone of palpable relief, Wolfson said: “This gives us huge momentum going forward. No politician in history ever came in with as much momentum as Sen. Obama had, and it was stopped.”
A different mix on the issues also helped Clinton. Among Democratic voters, the economy was the top issue, and she had a 9-point edge among these voters after losing them by 10 points in Iowa. And the advantage that Clinton has had all year among “downscale” voters never materialized in Iowa but was evident Tuesday night: among voters from households making under $50,000, Clinton led Obama by 15 percentage points. She also had a big lead among those without a college degree, while Obama had a double-digit advantage among those with post-graduate degrees.
Independents strongly favored Obama, breaking for him by more than 20 percentage points. First-time voters also tilted toward Obama, though they were not as large a factor as they were in his Iowa victory. And as in Iowa, there was a generational divide: Obama pulled 54 percent of voters younger than 30, compared with 25 percent for Clinton, while Clinton won 46 percent of voters older than 65, compared with 36 percent for Obama.
Not apparent in the numbers was any evidence that Clinton had benefited from a moment on Sunday when she choked up while describing how personal her campaign had become. Still, the flash of emotion shifted the dynamic of her campaign, suggesting that Clinton had cast aside caution in order to show a more human side.