Obama-mania in New Hampshire as new poll shocks Clinton camp

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Senator Barack Obama has been catapaulted by his Iowa victory into a sensational lead over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, just three days before the state's primary on Tuesday. The national pollster, Rasmussen Reports, which had Mr Obama trailing Mrs Clinton by three points just a few weeks ago, now gives him a lead of 10 per cent.

The Republican poll has Senator John McCain improving his position against Mitt Romney and now holding a five-point lead.

A foretaste of the way the wind is blowing here for the Clinton camp came on Friday night. Just over 3,000 activists of the New Hampshire Democratic Party gathered in an indoor sports hall in the city of Milford to listen to their candidates for the presidential nomination. Not the sort of folk to rush the stage or indulge in boos.

For months, Mrs Clinton has led polls here and has seemed unassailable. Yet, anyone attending the party's "100 Club" dinner here will surely know she faces a possible mincing on Tuesday thanks to one man.

"All Fired Up! Ready to Go!" Barack Obama, the victor among Democrats in Iowa, was the last scheduled speaker, and this was the chant that erupted even before he reached the stage. A security announcement followed: please take your seats! As if. And when the Senator from Illinois finally did step to the microphone, he struggled to make himself heard, such was the explosion of enthusiasm.

This was not some campus affair attended by mad-for-Barack students. (And they are legion.) We are talking about middle-aged white folks and the elite of the state's Democrat Party waving their signs and yelling a decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon name. O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! And this in New Hampshire, the last state to honour Martin Luther King Day in January as an official holiday.

Mrs Clinton did have her fans in the Astro-turfed hall. But if this event was a straw poll by voice, she will crash here on Tuesday, as she did with her third place in Iowa, and the dream, shared with husband Bill, of becoming the first woman in the White House will all but dissolve. She looked tired and when, twice, her remarks drew groans and even a few boos, you knew she heard them.

For her and probably also for Governor Romney, Tuesday may thus be make-or-break time. Iowa has had its say and the impact has been huge. This will be the first fully fledged primary election, kicking off the state-by-state primaries battle for the party nominations, and New Hampshire has a strong record of picking candidates who go on to be nominees and presidents.

All the runners were again fanning out yesterday, straining to recover ground lost in Iowa or vying, in the cases of Mike Huckabee and Senator Obama, to maintain momentum. In different ways, most of them were peddling a single theme: their ability to bring change to Washington.

For Mr Romney, it is an avenue for attacking Mr McCain, whose campaign, shrivelled just months ago, has shown new signs of resurgence. But the Arizona war hero is 71 years old and a long-time fixture on Capitol Hill. "The American people recognise we are not going to change Washington by sending back the same old faces and having them just change chairs," Mr Romney said at a rally here yesterday.

The pressure on him is huge. He spent wildly in Iowa and still only came second. He has a house in New Hampshire and was Governor of Massachusetts right next door. The good news is that Mr Huckabee is not so well placed here because, while Iowa is home to very large numbers of Christian conservatives who flocked to him, here they represent just 3 per cent of voters. It is Senator McCain he must beat.

Meanwhile, back at the "100 Club" dinner, the reception for Mr Obama took some of Clinton's supporters by surprise. Ellen Fineberg, 56, of Portsmouth, likes his oratory but insists that Hillary's message is more substantive if less soaring. "It is less sexy to speak realistically about what will work, what her experience tells her will work," she said. "I have seen Obama four times now and each time I leave thinking I should support this guy. But somehow I just don't."

The senator has not closed the deal with her, but it seems that on a decibel count she and Hillary may be slipping into a minority among New Hampshire Democrats.

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