It’s Hillary v the rest in New Hampshire

NEWS ANALYSIS

Ex-first lady seen as part of status quo against rivals’ winds of change.

MRS Hillary Rodham Clinton pursed her lips and pulled tight her black jacket.

As the cameras zoomed in on the New York senator during Saturday night’s televised debate among Democrat candidates heading for the country’s first crucial primary in New Hampshire tomorrow, she found herself cornered by two rivals who cast her as a candidate of the status quo.

It was the one single image that has weighed her down among voters in the race to the White House – and it could prove to be another blow to the former first lady hoping to be the “Comeback Kid” in New Hampshire. More bad news after her crippling loss in Iowa last week is fast dimming her hopes of achieving the reversal of fortune pulled off dramatically by her husband Bill Clinton after he finished second in New Hampshire during his campaign in 1992.

A new poll released just before the debate showed her losing her lead in what is known as the Granite State, even as criticism from supporters grew over her flawed campaign strategy.

Mrs Clinton and Mr Barack Obama are locked in a dead heat in New Hampshire, each with 33 per cent support. Mr John Edwards, the second- place finisher in Iowa, was trailing on 20 per cent in a poll conducted by CNN and New Hampshire TV station WMUR.

The Republican contenders – who similarly squared off for their own debate on Saturday – were also in a tight race.

Arizona senator John McCain is now the front runner in the battle in New Hampshire for the Republican nomination, with 33 per cent support.

His closest rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – who is catching up after his Iowa defeat – stands six points behind.

Given that the front runners from the Democrat and Republican parties are running almost neck and neck, the stakes could not be higher. The double-header debates were a chance for candidates to improve their image and popularity among voters before tomorrow’s primary.

Mrs Clinton clearly needed to do well. But the 90-minute debate, which featured four Democrat candidates, including New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, did little to restore her aura of inevitable victory.

If anything, she failed to blunt the momentum of Mr Obama. They sparred over issues such as health care and the Iraq war in what was a showdown over leadership.

She painted the African- American senator as an opportunistic flip-flopper who talks a good game but would not be able to deliver like she could.

“Words are not action, and as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action,” she said in a jab at his oratorical chops.

“Now, what we’ve got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that.”

She also sought to make an ally out of Mr Edwards by pitting him against Mr Obama.

But the ploy backfired, to her embarrassment. Mr Edwards sided with Mr Obama instead – an alliance which an Obama adviser told The Straits Times was a “winning ticket” for the White House.

Looking at Mr Obama, even as a defiant Mrs Clinton stiffened her posture and stared grimacingly at the two men, Mr Edwards said: “Any time you speak out powerfully for change, the forces of status quo attack. He believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change.”

The plot was strikingly similar in the Republican debate. It was five against one – Mr Romney being the subject of attack by each of his Republican rivals in another fiery debate.

He tangled with Mr McCain over immigration. He traded barbs with Mr Mike Huckabee on foreign policy and with ex-senator Fred Thompson on health care. And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani poked fun at his penchant for running negative ads.

He got most heat from Mr McCain, who is banking on a victory in New Hampshire to revive his candidacy. In particular, Mr McCain turned on Mr Romney’s campaign theme of change, poking fun at his track record of changing his position on issues like abortion rights.

The debates in both camps again highlighted the emerging theme of this election race: change. Mr Obama is profiting from a word that is a constant refrain with him and contributing to his growing popularity.

In New Hampshire last Friday, he found himself mobbed by supporters carrying a huge banner with “change” emblazoned on it. And Mrs Clinton has been forced to recalibrate her message in the state. She tried to borrow the word in her speech at a dinner but was booed twice.

As the debate on Saturday night also showed, Mrs Clinton’s image appears to be already set in stone.

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