Comebacks throw race wide open

NEWS ANALYSIS

Wins by Hillary and McCain add more uncertainty to election campaign.

IT WAS the night of the Comeback Kids.

Former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton produced a dramatic fightback in the country’s first primary in New Hampshire yesterday. This comes possibly as a sequel to achieving the reversal of fortune her husband pulled off here in the Democratic nomination contest in 1992.

In one fell swoop, she blunted the accelerating momentum of rival Barack Obama, the 46-year-old African-American senator, and threw the Democratic contest more wide open.

Arizona senator John McCain, 71, trod the same path he took eight years ago by capping a stunning Republican victory in the north-east state – just months after being near broke and plummeting in the polls.

By defeating the early favourite, former governor Mitt Romney, the Vietnam War veteran sets the stage for another unpredictable showdown in a still fluid Republican race.

In effect, the Comeback Kids have added even greater uncertainty to the election campaign – one of the most open in 50 years.

The biggest story, of course, was Mrs Clinton’s. She clawed back from the jaws of almost certain defeat.

The New York senator’s own campaign seemed resigned to a loss even at the eleventh hour, with talk of senior staff shake-ups and money problems dominating the political chatter.

How did she pull it off? Exit polls showed that she had solid support from registered Democrats and the backing of women who deserted her in the painful defeat in the Iowa caucuses last week.

According to surveys, she won 47 per cent compared to 34 per cent for Mr Obama – a considerable reversal from her five-point deficit among women in Iowa. That swing in support was a result of a calibrated attempt by the Clinton team to highlight her gender during campaigning.

Mrs Clinton brought her daughter Chelsea to her rallies in the final days of the contest. She also raised the gender issue in a tense televised debate on Saturday night, which saw her foes Mr Obama and former senator John Edwards gang up against her.

The decisive moment for her appeared to be an encounter with a supporter in a diner on Monday, in which she fought back tears when asked how she was coping with the pressures of the campaign.

The clip – showing her eyes moist and reddened – was telecast repeatedly, revealing a rare vulnerability to a politician with a cold and steely image.

A second important factor was the backing of Democrat supporters. While Mr Obama garnered support from independent voters, Mrs Clinton strengthened her position with Democrats who saw her as a more experienced leader than her rival.

This could prove crucial for her in the race ahead as many of the contested states allow only Democrats to vote in their party’s primary.

New Hampshire might have burst the Obama-mania bubble. But the fight is far from over even if Mrs Clinton’s supporters are drawing parallels with 1992 when victory in the state was a turning point for her husband Bill Clinton in his march to the party nomination.

Then, however, Mr Clinton faced a weak and fractured Democratic field. There was no one like Mr Obama who has the money, organisation and political guile to take on the Clinton juggernaut across America.

The next two battles – the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary – are particularly significant if Mrs Clinton hopes to build up momentum. She holds a 20-point opinion poll lead in the western state of Nevada. Powerful unions there, however, are throwing their weight behind Mr Obama.

In South Carolina, half of the state’s Democratic voters are African-Americans who have traditionally backed the Clintons but are now being swayed by Mr Obama’s charm offensive.

That leaves the clutch of more than 20 states voting on Super Tuesday, Feb 5, including Mrs Clinton’s home base of New York, California, Illinois and Arkansas. It could be her Waterloo – or even Mr Obama’s.

The Republican race appears even more volatile.

Mr McCain’s campaign appeared dead in the water just a few months ago as laggardly fundraising and a series of staff departures left him with little hope of winning the Republican nomination. But yesterday, he roared back into the top tier of a crowded presidential field.

Several events brought Mr McCain back into the fray.

Support has been steadily eroding for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who attracts the same independent-minded Republicans as him. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson faded after his late entry into the race.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee surged in Iowa, pulling conservatives from Mr Romney, whose Mormonism drew suspicion from the party’s evangelical Christian base.

All eyes will now be on Michigan and South Carolina over the next two weeks. Mr McCain carried Michigan in 2000 but faltered in South Carolina, which could come back to haunt him yet again.

Mr Romney, whose long-stated strategy was to win Iowa and New Hampshire through aggressive campaigning and big spending, is certain to mount a fightback in Michigan, a state where his father was governor.

With such perilous uncertainty in the Republican and Democratic presidential races, it will be no surprise to see other Comeback Kids escape to fight another day.

Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain did just that in New Hampshire.

“Let’s give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.”
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON in Manchester, New Hampshire

“Tonight, we sure showed ‘em what a comeback looks like.”
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN in Nashua, New Hampshire

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