Comeback Kid: The Sequel: never underestimate a Clinton

The media gleefully predicted Obama's onward march, and were left stunned when New Hampshire spoke. So, has Hillary finally found her voice? By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

She hadn't even bothered to prepare a victory speech. There were just two versions: one if she lost badly, the other if she at least managed to make it close. But her campaign advisers were bleakly sure the former, not the latter, would be required.

To contain the anticipated damage, aides at the last minute shifted the event from the main gym at Southern New Hampshire University to an adjoining smaller arena. It would still be a concession speech. But it wouldn't feel so much like a wake, and the sparseness of the crowd would be less noticeable. Then everything went haywire. Hillary Clinton won.

As political shocks go, last Tuesday's New Hampshire primary is up there with the best of them. Stunned by Barack Obama at Iowa's caucuses five days before, the former First Lady's campaign was expecting another drubbing at the hands of the charismatic Illinois Senator in the bellwether first primary of the election season. The polls said so, the pundits said so, and the ecstatic rallies attracted by Obama seemed to say so as well.

At the very least a staff shake-up loomed – several top aides had already agreed to offer their resignations once the expected defeat had been confirmed – while old Clinton retainers such as Maggie Williams, her chief of staff at the White House, and Paul Begala, an architect of her husband's 1992 win, would be recalled to the colours.

Others warned of a looming cash crunch as fundraisers deserted en masse. After a loss in New Hampshire, Hillary might be forced to skip the potentially make-or-break South Carolina primary at the end of next week, to concentrate her remaining resources on the 22 states voting on mega-Tuesday, 5 February. Some even speculated that she might pull out of the White House race there and then, to avoid further humiliation at the hands of the neophyte Obama.

One way and another, the long dominance of the Clinton machine was set to end, and a page in Democratic party history would be turned. "The Fall of the House of Clinton," gloated the cover story of the Weekly Standard. But like the rest of the US media, the magazine that is the bible of conservative Washington had jumped the gun. "Yeah," lamented editor Fred Barnes, "the Fall was over after five days. But it was fun while it lasted."

Never, ever, underestimate a Clinton. For the best part of two decades that has been the cardinal lesson of US politics. Recoveries from apparently fatal setbacks are a Clinton stock-in-trade. Even so, the past few weeks may have been the pair's closest brush with disaster yet. They began with a couple of bad debate performances, and it got worse when Obama made a spell-binding speech in Iowa, launching not so much a candidate as a movement.

All the while, Bill and Hillary struggled to hit the right note. She was either too feminine, or not feminine enough. Her master campaigner husband was uncharacteristically ineffective as well. Obama was young, and fresh, the face of the future. The Clintons came across as stale and old, a throwback to the past. Once there had been no alternative to them. Now there was, in the person of a young, compellingly talented black man who seemed to float above the fray, politics' version of Muhammad Ali in his prime.

But the Iowa defeat was still a shock. No longer was she on a pre-ordained glidepath to the nomination. Hillary was no longer even the front runner, as her lead in the national polls – 30 per cent over Obama at one point in autumn – dwindled to next to nothing. Meanwhile Obama's momentum out of Iowa had catapulted him into a clear lead in New Hampshire, where a second straight win would probably guarantee him the nomination.

Or so the polls said. In the event an average eve-of-poll Obama advantage of seven or eight points stunningly mutated into a two-point win for Hillary when the real votes were counted, 39 per cent to 37 per cent. The post mortems and mea culpas about what went wrong will continue for weeks, but already theories about what happened abound.

Almost certainly, New Hampshire's system of open primaries meant some independents who would otherwise have participated on the Democratic side and supported Obama, voted for the highly popular John McCain in the Republican primary instead. Some detect the "Bradley effect", named after a former African-American mayor of Los Angeles who in real elections invariably won a smaller share of the vote than predicted. The reason, it emerged, was that poorer whites often told pollsters they would support a black candidate, but did not do so in the privacy of the voting booth.

If so, then Obama fell victim to his race. On the other hand, why were the polls spot-on in Iowa, an even whiter state than New Hampshire? Nor was there any evidence of a late swing to Clinton. Exit polls found that people who made up their mind in the final 24 hours broke the same way as the overall electorate. In fact, the psephological explanation for her success was simple. Women, who accounted for an astounding 57 per cent of turn-out, returned to Hillary after deserting her in Iowa. Obama won convincingly among male Democrats and independents – but not convincingly enough to make up for the female tide of support for his opponent.

However the real reason for Hillary Clinton's victory was ... Hillary Clinton. Between Iowa and New Hampshire, something changed. It wasn't a root-and-branch re-invention; not even a Clinton can do that in just five days, after 16 years on the national stage. But finally Hillary, whose steely composure often made her seem unfeeling, even unlikeable, connected with voters.

It wasn't just the now celebrated scene at the diner last Monday afternoon, when her voice cracked and tears welled up in her eyes as she talked about the personal strains of campaigning. Sure, the moment crystallised the resentment of many women who thought she had been picked on by the men – even by gallant Obama himself, with his semi-sneering line at the final pre-election debate, "Hillary, you're likeable enough." But there was more to the turnaround than that.

As Robert Zimmerman, a major Clinton fundraiser, told The Washington Post: "There was a lot of frustration after Iowa. But then she seemed to turn a corner. She was going after primary voters, not fighting the general election. Donors have been calling me saying, 'It's about time, why didn't it happen sooner?'"

But happen it finally did. In New Hampshire, Clinton hung around after meetings to take questions from the audience – even from the press, despite her and her husband's not unfounded belief the media was hopelessly biased in favour of the untested Obama. She let her natural humour, even the odd flash of anger, show. She behaved, in short, like a normal person.

And the human stage sets changed too. Gone were the faces of yesteryear, such as Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, and Wes Clark, who as Nato supreme commander was Bill Clinton's favourite general. Instead she made sure plenty of children attended her events. Accompanying her was daughter Chelsea, not her husband. The candidate of the status quo and the restoration of a dynasty thus became candidate of youth and the future. With no pretence of subtlety, she was stealing a corner at least of Obama's mantle of change and hope.

Old suspicions, of course, do not die easily. Yes, the show of emotion at the diner had probably helped, Hillary admitted on the TV morning shows, the day after her upset victory. So was this yet more calculated emotion, the fake authenticity which detractors used to see at every turn with Bill? And had the Clintons been talking down her chances to make the comeback seem bigger?

If so, they fooled even their own campaign. The sheer shock in the eyes of those Clinton workers in the SHNU gym as the first results came in told how they had expected to lose, and badly. Though Hillary's lead held at 3 per cent or more with the count two-thirds done, they still feared returns from late-reporting university towns, where Obama was strong, would upend everything. Only when CBS television finally declared her the winner, at 10.30pm, did they let out a whoop of relief – and belief.

The nightmare was over. Hastily the candidate cobbled together a script for victory, a comeback at least as significant as her husband's recovery from the Gennifer Flowers and draft-evasion scandals to claim an honourable second place in 1992 in New Hampshire. With due respect to the late Paul Tsongas, the winner that year, Bill Clinton faced no opponent even half as formidable as Obama.

"Over the last week I listened to you," she told her supporters on Tuesday night, "and in the process I found my own voice." With those few words, Hillary pressed the reset button on an entire presidential campaign. Henceforth, one suspects, she will at last trust her instincts, rather than calibrating every answer to internal campaign polling exercises.

So now on to the Nevada caucuses next Saturday, to South Carolina, and to what may be the decisive showdown with Obama on 5 February. The pattern of the past, for what it's worth, points in her direction. Democratic primaries often boil down to a battle between the establishment candidate and a gifted outsider. Thus it was when Hubert Humphrey ran in 1968, when Walter Mondale faced Gary Hart in 1984, and in 2000 when Al Gore was opposed by Bill Bradley. This time it's Hillary versus Obama, and thus far a similar breakdown holds. The very poor and the wealthy have favoured the outsider (Hart, Bradley, now Obama). But the establishment figure carried the largest income group in the middle, and each time went on to win the nomination.

Will Hillary do the same? After New Hampshire's debacle of punditry, prediction is lunacy. But after a fumbling start, the Clintons may have hit their stride. She is the candidate stressing the positive and who is unfailingly well prepared (it was telling that on Friday she was the first Democrat to unveil a detailed plan to tackle the gathering economic recession that has replaced Iraq as the voters' biggest concern). Bill, meanwhile, is genial hatchetman, constantly pointing to Obama's vagueness and inexperience.

Except he wasn't so genial the other day when he complained how Obama had been given a free ride by the media on Iraq and other issues. "Give me a break," he told students at Dartmouth College, red with rage. "This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I've ever seen."

But the real fairytale was his wife's political rebirth last Tuesday. The House of Clinton may have tottered. But it still stands.

The pundits: Eating humble pie

Commentators were left with egg on their faces after having so confidently – and gloatingly – written Clinton off after her defeat in the Iowa caucuses only to see her beat Obama in the bellwether New Hampshire primary...

Before

She's flailing. She's not convincing people. The campaign feels like it's going to the emergency room right now

After

I need to retire. I've got to shoot myself and take myself out of this business! How can I not know my state?

Arnie Arnesen, New Hampshire TV talkshow host

Before

As she watches her support melt away, her face resembles the Snow Queen seeing summer return to Narnia

After

Her victory stunned not only pundits, unanimous in predicting another comfortable win for Mr Obama, but even Mrs Clinton's own aides

Tom Baldwin, The Times

Before

Can a one-time favourite who suffers early setbacks revive a campaign by attacking in the other direction?

After

OK, Hillary won tonight... This is what happens when you ignore your own advice to let the people vote first

Jeff Greenfield, CBS correspondent, on slate.com

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