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« At Clinton Site, Obama Love | Blog Home Page | Morning Thoughts: Fired Up »

One Night, Two Comebacks

NASHUA, New Hampshire -- Eight years ago, John McCain stood at a podium in the Crowne Plaza hotel here and thanked New Hampshire voters for giving him a surprisingly big win over then-Texas Governor George Bush. Tonight, just months after his campaign imploded to a point at which pundits and supporters all but declared his candidacy toast, McCain again thanked Granite Staters for giving him a come-from-behind win.

Recent polls had shown McCain pulling ahead of Mitt Romney, and by the end many expected a win. In recent days, Romney's campaign even began downplaying expectations. On the other side of the aisle, though, as Barack Obama pulled ahead in polls and appeared to be peaking at just the right time, election night proved a real surprise: Voters in the Granite State gave Clinton a shocking victory even as some top political watchers privately predicted a double-digit Obama win.

Clinton's position in polls was so bad that rumors abounded on Tuesday of an imminent major campaign shake-up. Senator Dick Durbin, Obama's top backer in the Senate, hinted that several members of the upper chamber would rush to back his candidate after a resounding victory here, and an influential union in Nevada, seen as key to a victory there, seemed set to give Obama their nod.

Thanks to late-breaking women and a stronger than expected preference for Republican ballots among independent voters, Clinton avoided calls for her to pull out of the race and opened the door to the possibility of seizing back momentum.

Both campaigns depended on New Hampshire, though for different reasons. For Clinton, the state represented a potential firewall against an Obama win in Iowa. That strategy appeared destined for failure as Obama surged, and Clinton's team began preparing to virtually cede Nevada and South Carolina, falling back on February 5 states as a last chance for victory. For McCain, the state represented a starting point from which his team could gain much-needed momentum heading into Michigan, South Carolina and Florida.

McCain's reversal of fortune invited comparisons to Bill Clinton, whose surprise second-place showing here in 1992 propelled him to the nomination. "I'm past the age when I can claim the noun 'kid,' no matter what adjective precedes it," McCain told supporters. "But tonight we sure showed them what a comeback looks like."

Those who chose Republican ballots in New Hampshire were much less satisfied with the Bush Administration than Republicans in other candidates, the exit polls showed. It was McCain, who long fought against what he called a losing strategy in Iraq and called for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, who benefited from that dissatisfaction. McCain held a 14-point lead among the 49% who said they were dissatisfied with the incumbent administration, while Romney led by just five among those who viewed Bush in a satisfactory light.

As in 2000, McCain won a substantial majority of independents, who favored him by 13 points. Romney held just a one-point advantage among registered Republicans, who made up 61% of the electorate. McCain's independents, comprising 37% of voters, put him over the top. McCain also did well among voters who said a candidate saying what he believed was the most important quality for a candidate, along with those who valued experience most.

Clinton's own turnaround was bolstered by conventional wisdom, which suggested she would lose by a wide margin. The startling results could ensure that both the Democratic and Republican races will continue well beyond the February 5 "Super Duper Tuesday." Since Iowa, Obama took over the front-runner mantle from Clinton. Now, there is no clear leader, and both candidates are in the contest for the long run.

The Democratic race was decided by women and by older voters. Exit polls showed Clinton held a 13-point margin over Obama among women, who made up 57% of the Democratic electorate. Clinton also held an eight-point and 15-point lead among those between 50-64 and those over 65 years old, who made up 31% and 13% of the electorate, respectively.

Obama, whose Iowa victory was largely based on huge turnout among first-time caucus-goers, also held a big twelve-point lead among those who attended their first New Hampshire primary. But those first-timers only made up 20% of the electorate. Clinton, by contrast, had a six-point lead among those who had voted in a primary before, a whopping four-fifths of voters who turned out. Obama's large twelve-point lead among independent voters, who made up 43% of Democratic voters, was largely negated by Clinton's eleven-point lead among registered Democrats, who comprised 54%.

As candidates prepare to move on, Romney's campaign and Obama's campaign will spend sleepless nights plotting their next moves. Relieved strategists helping Clinton and McCain are looking to their next contests -- Nevada, for Clinton, and Michigan, for McCain -- with new hope. Two opportunities for fatal blows to one-time front-runners were averted, and on both sides of the aisle, a campaign that feels like it has dragged on forever only extended itself tonight.