Clinton and Romney go on the offensive

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The Independent US

Hillary Clinton is facing political calamity in primary voting in New Hampshire tomorrow and the collapse of her quest to become America's first woman president as support for her chief rival, Barack Obama, continues to swell in the wake of his convincing first place in the Iowa caucuses last week.

Opinion polls published at the weekend suggested a clear migration of Democrat and independent voters to the Obama camp. While the Illinois senator trailed Mrs Clinton in New Hampshire for months, a variety of surveys now show him either neck-and-neck with her or vaulting several points ahead.

At a sometimes testy television debate between the Democrats in Manchester on Saturday, Mrs Clinton accused Mr Obama of offering a flawed plan on universal healthcare and pledging change without the experience to deliver it. "I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver, and we don't need to be raising the false hopes," she said. Betraying what seemed like exasperation, Mrs Clinton insisted: "I'm not just running on a promise of change, I'm running on 35 years of change."

Afterwards, she deployed her most senior advisers, notably her chief consultant Mark Penn, to the post-debate "spin-room" to make her case to reporters. With virtual veto-power over campaign strategy until now, Mr Penn is feeling the flames himself for what went awry in Iowa. He is accused of underestimating Mr Obama's appeal and the yearning among voters for something or somebody really different. What no consultant can do is give Mrs Clinton what Mr Obama appears to have: the ability to inspire.

Mr Obama got unexpected help even before taking his seat. As the Republicans wound up their own debate on the same stage minutes before, he got a compliment from the other Iowa victor, Mike Huckabee. "He has excited a lot of voters in this country," said the former Arkansas governor. He warned his main rivals Mitt Romney and John McCain: "We'd better be careful as a party, because if we don't give people something to be for, and only something to be against, we're going to lose that next election."

The pollster John Zogby said yesterday: "We are seeing clear movement in Obama's direction and away from Hillary Clinton. There isn't much time for her to regroup here." A new Zogby/ Reuters survey showed the two candidates in a dead heat, but it was partly conducted before the Iowa results. One poll last night, by Rasmussen, gave Mr Obama 39 per cent against 27 per cent for Mrs Clinton.

John Edwards, the second-placed Democrat in Iowa, began a 36-hour marathon of campaigning across New Hampshire yesterday. In Saturday's debate, he occasionally made common cause with Mr Obama. "Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack," said Mr Edwards. "I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. Now that she's not, we hear them."

It is 71-year-old Mr McCain, who, according to most post-Iowa polls, seems poised to win New Hampshire tomorrow in the Republican field. Mr Huckabee does not have the evangelical Christian numbers to win here and would be happy to come third.

One voter, Roland Gagnon, admitted an interest in Mr Romney, but it is Mr McCain he will probably pick. "I like his military background," he said. "And he has weathered a lot of storms."

Mr Romney endured some sharp criticism from his rivals on the debate stage. When the subject turned to Iraq, he pleaded, "Don't try to characterise my position," to which Mr Huckabee quipped, "Which one?"