The beat goes on, faster and more cacophonous than ever. After the comeback victories of Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton in last week's New Hampshire primaries, the presidential campaign is now moving south and west—with a two-person race shaping up for the Democratic nomination and a four-man contest for the GOP. Meanwhile, the parties and the country are trying to figure out, without much success, exactly what they want from the next president and who can best provide it. "Take the conventional wisdom, and throw it out the window," says Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's former White House chief of staff. "The Democrats are fluid. The Republicans are chaotic." The protracted struggle will give voters a chance to see the candidates perform under pressure for at least the next month, with the likelihood that the campaign will turn increasingly harsh as it accelerates.
Clinton's victory was the most startling because she had been behind in the opinion polls just the day before. She generated a last-minute wave of support from Democratic women, seniors, and union members to carry her over the top and stun Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who had won the Iowa caucuses a week earlier. In her victory speech, a triumphant Clinton thanked the voters, declaring, "I listened to you, and I found my own voice." Echoing the emotional remarks she had made at a forum in Portsmouth, she said the campaign wasn't about winning or losing—but helping people. "I intend to be a president that puts you first," Clinton noted. She edged out Obama's 36 percent of the Democratic vote with a 39 percent win. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards came in third with 17 percent.
Clinton now plans to take a three-pronged approach into the next series of contests. First, she will continue to emphasize her experience as first lady and U.S. senator from New York as credentials for being commander in chief. Second, she will step up her criticism of the relatively thin Washington résumé of Obama. Last, her strategists say, Clinton will reveal more of her personal side and speak "from the heart" to improve her likability.
As for McCain, his triumph was as much personal as ideological. The Arizona senator and former Vietnam POW seemed more authentic and candid than his opponents, stating his principles no matter the consequences. Exit polls showed that this was important to GOP voters and set him apart. "I didn't go to Washington to go along, to get along, or to play it safe to serve my own interests," said McCain, who lagged badly in the national polls for many months but now is back in contention. "I went there to serve my country." The maverick Republican, drawing on traditional conservatives and independents, won with 37 percent to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 32, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 11, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 9, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul's 8.
In many ways, the mixed results from Iowa and New Hampshire have unsettled the race more than ever. And both the winners and the losers agree that there will probably be more surprises ahead. But the lengthy struggle has distinct advantages for the voters. For one thing, it will give Americans a chance to assess how the candidates respond to adversity. And there has been plenty of it to go around.
Take the Democratic field. Obama seemed hopelessly behind Clinton in national polls until he defeated her soundly in Iowa January 3. Then it was Clinton's turn to face frustration and disappointment. As Obama rode a wave of positive publicity and rising poll numbers, Clinton and her advisers seemed stressed out and exhausted. But she scored her startling New Hampshire victory on January 8, setting Obama back on his heels.
This week, the campaign swings to Michigan and Nevada for nominating caucuses and South Carolina for a Republican primary. On January 26, South Carolina holds its Democratic primary. Then comes Florida on January 29, followed by Maine on February 1 and 24 states, including California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York, on February 5.
The Democrats have the most compelling narrative. For starters, their front-runners are two fascinating and historically important figures—Clinton, who would be the first female president, and Obama, who would be the first African-American president. Each has plenty of money and a strong organization and can stay in the fight for many weeks, possibly right up until the national convention starting August 25 in Denver.
Overall, change is still the watchword. "People are fed up and want things done differently," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, a former adviser to McCain. Of course, this is nothing new. Americans are often drawn to candidates who promise to shake up the status quo, as with Ross Perot in 1992, Gary Hart in 1984, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. But delivering on the rhetoric is the real challenge, says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, and that's apparently one reason that Obama faded last week. Many voters, in the end, agreed with Clinton that Obama was offering too many bromides and not enough details. There is also the problem of zealotry. "When asked, 'What are you going to do?' it's hard to outline something very bold without seeming very radical," says Zelizer. That is a problem shared by both Obama and John Edwards.