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McCain, Clinton show grit, backbone, determination

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David Broder
January 10, 2008
— The lesson of New Hampshire can be summarized in two simple words: Character counts.

John McCain and Hillary Clinton left the Granite State on Wednesday with hard-earned primary victories because they showed its voters more courage in overcoming daunting odds than anyone else in the race.


Where Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama had prevailed in Iowa as candidates of faith and hope, respectively, McCain and Clinton won in New Hampshire by dint of grit, backbone and sheer determination.


McCain came back from a disastrous early summer slump that stripped his campaign treasury bare and caused an exodus of highly paid consultants. He patiently reconstructed the local networks of support that had given him a New Hampshire victory over George Bush in 2000, and nurtured them in more than 100 town meeting question-and-answer sessions.


Mike Dennehy, a veteran of that 2000 campaign and his local manager, recalled last week that it was not until Thanksgiving time last year that they could sense any significant revival of voter interest in McCain. But the senator never lost faith in his message, Dennehy said, or slackened in his efforts.


By contrast, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, blessed with a personal fortune and a high-powered local organization, kept varying his TV and stump themes, continually searching for the formula that he thought would be persuasive. The net effect was to cost him a substantial degree of his personal reputation for integrity—and that was reflected in the negative press coverage by New Hampshire newspapers. It was not until the last few days that Romney settled on an effective message of being the non-Washington reformer who could bring change to the gridlocked capital.


Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani wavered in an even more basic way. When McCain hit the skids last summer, Giuliani launched a TV campaign to challenge Romney here and followed up with personal appearances. But he backed off as soon as he encountered resistance, hoarding his money for a later stand in Florida.


His fourth-place finish Tuesday, trailing even Huckabee, who had written off New Hampshire until he claimed his Iowa victory, leaves Giuliani a vulnerable challenger as the campaign moves to Michigan and South Carolina.


McCain, for one, believes on the basis of New Hampshire exit polls that he has a stronger claim than Giuliani to the anti-terrorism credential that many Republican voters are seeking in their nominee. Huckabee has the inside track on the Religious Right, while Romney perhaps has only one more chance to find a niche in the party’s business center when Michigan, his native state, votes Tuesday.


Meantime, while McCain had six months to recover from disaster, Clinton was forced to do it in five days. Her third-place finish in Iowa, well behind Obama and losing narrowly to John Edwards, left her campaign reeling. Her husband’s bitter complaints about the crowding of early events on the calendar, leaving her insufficient time to recover, seemed to presage a meltdown in the normally disciplined Clinton camp.


But at the very point when those around her seemed stressed to the breaking point, the senator herself rallied. She put on one of the best of her many strong debate performances on Saturday night and followed up with marathon question-and-answer sessions with voters on Sunday and Monday.


The exit polls confirmed that her courage under fire had the effect particularly of rallying support among women. The gender gap that had been notably missing in Iowa reappeared here and fueled her victory.


The Obama-Clinton contest now offers Democrats a battle between two worthy opponents. She has deeper roots among core Democrats, especially women and blue-collar workers, but he has stronger appeal to independents and younger, better-educated people.


Neither is likely to crumble or run short of money until after the big states have voted Feb. 5.


The 2008 election is only days old, and it already has provided more drama and surprises than many campaign years of the past. This one promises to be a classic.



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