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.
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.
For the Democrats, it comes down again to Clinton and Obama, with the possibility of a solid showing by Edwards, who was born in South Carolina. Obama could make a big comeback on the strength of African-American voters who had been withholding support because they weren't convinced he could win. His victory in Iowa and near miss in New Hampshire could cause many blacks to shift his way.
Wild Bill. Bill Clinton might be the wild card. The former president remains very popular among blacks, and South Carolina political strategists say that if he made a personal appeal on behalf of his wife, it could make a big difference—as long as he didn't go too far. In New Hampshire, he said Obama's message of change amounted to a "fairy tale," which Obama supporters considered excessive. "President Clinton needs to show more respect for Obama," says a Democratic activist in South Carolina who hasn't taken sides in the race.
Finally, there is high potential in South Carolina for a very negative campaign. In fact, it's a tradition. In 2000, for example, McCain lost the South Carolina primary to George W. Bush amid harsh attacks on his character and his political stands, and he vows not to let such slash-and-burn tactics torpedo him again. Last week, McCain created a Truth Squad in South Carolina, led by four local and state officials, to respond immediately to attacks.
But so far, it has been Romney, not McCain, who has been the target. A controversial "Christmas card" arrived in the mailboxes of Republican operatives over the holidays, falsely claiming to be from Romney, that included references to his Mormon faith. One talked about God's acceptance of polygamy (which the church abandoned long ago); another reference praised the Virgin Mary because she was "exceedingly fair and white." The gambit was seen as a way to remind GOP activists of Romney's religion, which many conservative Christians consider a big vulnerability.
So far, no one has figured out who was responsible, but state officials of both parties aren't surprised. They predict that the dirty tricks have only just begun.
—With Alex Kingsbury in New Hampshire