Headed for a Showdown

Upcoming contests will be tiebreakers for Clinton and Obama.


Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea at a rally in Nashua, N.H., last week.

By + More

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.

War and peace. Clinton, in contrast, is trying to bill herself as a reformer, not a radical—someone who knows how to change Washington without tilting at windmills. Zelizer expects the campaign to pivot now toward questions of "bread and butter, war and peace" in the next month, and he says the winner will be the candidate who comes up with the most credible answers.

For Obama's part, he and his aides say they will respond more quickly and sharply to attacks. But Obama's message will remain essentially the same—that he would shake up the status quo in Washington and bring new ideas and fresh faces to the White House. "We know the battle ahead will be long," he told a rally in New Hampshire last week. "But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change." Obama attributed his loss partly to voters' desire to see each candidate thoroughly tested. "They want to lift the hood, kick the tires," he explained.

Without a doubt. And that testing process seemed to underlie one of the campaign's most vivid moments so far. It happened at a diner in Portsmouth on the day before the primary. During a forum, Clinton was asked how she coped with the campaign's endless demands. Her eyes welled up and her voice broke as she talked about the stakes. "This is very personal for me," she said softly. "Some people think elections are a game—who's up or who's down. It's about our country. It's about our kids' future. It's about all of us together." The media gave the incident saturation coverage, which Clinton aides said created sympathy and helped to turn the tide in her favor, especially among women.

But the public and media reactions also reflected how polarizing Clinton still is. Clinton critics said the moment seemed calculated to increase her likability. Others saw it as a sign of weakness amid the frustrations of the campaign. But what apparently struck many New Hampshire voters, particularly women, was a sense that Clinton had finally shown an appealing side that she had kept hidden as she underscored her toughness and policy expertise.

Beyond all that, Clinton and Obama continue to impress voters in different ways. "I voted for Hillary because she can win—simple," says Eve Harris, 49, of Portsmouth. But Tom Murphy, 66, semiretired lawyer from Dover, had another idea. "Hillary is great for following the old formulas, but Obama seems to be charting his own course," he says. "His experience doesn't really concern me that much."

The next big test will be in South Carolina. For the Republicans, polls point to a close contest, but many analysts give the edge to Huckabee, who enjoys strong popularity among Christian conservatives. "People feel he's 'one of us,' " says Clemson political scientist David Woodard. Other competitors are McCain, Romney, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.