Stakes high for New Hampshire primary

The Democratic contest is more likely to be decisive.

mary knox merrill – staff
Big turnout: Hundreds of Barack Obama supporters waited in line for a rally at Nashua North High School in New Hampshire on Saturday.
Mary Knox Merrill - staff
Democratic contender Barack Obama was in Nashua on Saturday.
mary knox merrill – staff
independent voter: Anthony Dinino in Peterborough, N.H.
Mary Knox Merrill - staff
Politicking: GOP presidential candidate John McCain (l.) campaigned in Peterborough, N.H.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, voters here are poised to turn out in record numbers in a contest that could prove decisive for the Democrats and muddy the Republican field.

Most polls show a tight race on the Democratic side, but with momentum in the direction of Barack Obama. After the Illinois senator's historic victory in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 – making him the first African-American to win an early nominating contest in US history – he continues to draw massive crowds here in the Granite State.

On the Republican side, John McCain looks poised to be the "comeback codger" of the 2008 cycle. Left for dead politically last summer after his campaign imploded, the Arizona senator has come roaring back in the state that fell in love with him eight years ago and gave him a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary against the eventual president, George W. Bush.

"It feels like we've caught the lightning in the bottle again," Senator McCain told reporters on his campaign bus, according to news reports.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the Republican caucuses in Iowa, on the backs of evangelical voters. But with minimal presence here and facing a GOP electorate with a much smaller proportion of religious conservatives than in Iowa, Mr. Huckabee set his sights on capturing at most third place. In the GOP, the candidate with the most to lose here is Mitt Romney, former governor of next-door Massachusetts.

Mr. Romney staked his strategy on winning both Iowa and New Hampshire, putting up millions of dollars of his personal fortune and blanketing the airwaves with ads in an attempt to establish early momentum. But two straight losses could make the next contest, the Jan. 15 Michigan primary, his final stand. As a Michigan native and son of a well-known former governor, Romney has a strong profile there.

Hillary Clinton, the longtime national front-runner on the Democratic side, finds herself in straits similar to Romney's. Since the 1970s, when the modern nominating process began, few candidates have been able to capture the nomination after failing to win Iowa and New Hampshire. (The New York senator's husband, former President Bill Clinton, pulled that off in 1992, but in that cycle the Democratic caucuses went uncontested, with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa in the race.)

In Republican and Democratic debates here Saturday night, all eyes were on both Mrs. Clinton and Romney. The New York senator went after Mr. Obama, challenging him on what she called his changed positions on healthcare, the Patriot Act, and Iraq war funding. And in an election year with voters of both major parties calling clearly for change, she portrayed herself as the candidate of experience, best able to bring about change.

"Words are not actions," Clinton said, alluding to the soaring rhetoric of Obama's stump speech. "And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the overdue influence that they have in our government."

Clinton also managed a moment of levity, when she was asked why so many voters don't like her. "Well, that hurts my feelings," she said, to audience laughter. And she noted the historic nature of her own candidacy: "I embody change," she said. "I think having the first woman president is a huge change, with consequences across the country and the world."

Obama fought back against Clinton, as did former Sen. John Edwards, the second-place finisher in Iowa, whose populist, pugilistic style contrasted with Obama's message of hope and unity. Mr. Edwards, who used the word "fight" 24 times in the debate, may also find it difficult to keep his campaign going if he does not do well here. The Democrats' next significant contest, South Carolina, is shaping up as a two-person contest between Clinton and Obama. Half the Democratic electorate there is black, and though the Clinton name is gold among African-Americans, Obama – who is half white, half black – could find a wholesale shift to his side if he wins in New Hampshire.

In the GOP debate, Romney appeared to be fighting a two-front war against both McCain and Huckabee, but did not appear to gain any traction. McCain zinged Romney when he called him "the candidate of change" – an allusion to how Romney changed his positions on social and other issues in advance of the primaries to appeal to the conservative Republican base.

The McCain comeback, if it transpires, will be one of the big stories out of New Hampshire. Romney topped the polls here for months, but fell flat in face-to-face contact with voters.

"He's stiff, he's programmed, he knows what to say and do," says Dick Bennett, a New Hamsphire-based pollster. "But he tends to talk at voters, not with voters."

McCain, in contrast, enjoys give and take with voters and isn't shy about disagreeing with them. But voters here come away respecting him and, as often as not, willing to vote for him, even if they don't agree with him on every issue.

In an interesting side contest, Obama and McCain are both going after New Hampshire's considerable population of registered independents – 44 percent of the state's electorate. In this cycle, two-thirds of independents are leaning Democratic – and if the predicted record turnout takes place, Obama is the likely beneficiary, as he was in Iowa. But McCain can still win the Republican primary, even without a majority of independents. To win a primary here, candidates must appeal first and foremost to base voters in their respective parties.

After a McCain event on Saturday in Peterborough, N.H., one voter said he was still undecided among the Arizonan, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Obama.

"After today, I'm leaning toward McCain," said Anthony Dinino of Peterborough, a recent transplant from Long Island in New York. "But I tend to lean liberal on social issues" – and therefore Mr. Giuliani is still in the running. Then there's Obama: "I like his message of hope and optimism."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.