IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Clinton escapes to fight another day

New Hampshire kept Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton alive.  Averting the blowout loss that many polls had predicted allowed Clinton’s campaign to portray the result in the Democratic primary here on Tuesday night as a stunning turnabout.
Image: Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton campaigns at a Dunkin' Donuts in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday. Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

New Hampshire kept Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton alive.

Her victory in the Democratic primary on Tuesday night was portrayed by her campaign as a stunning turnabout. Given how dire her situation had appeared just hours earlier, the spin was not unjustified.

In the end, she survived because registered Democrats preferred her to Senator Barack Obama, though independents went for him, according to exit polls. And she benefited from strong support among women, a constituency that she worked hard to appeal to in the campaign’s final days here.

Mrs. Clinton is now likely to be able to appeal to donors for more money for what is shaping up as a protracted battle against Mr. Obama. The internal squabbling about her campaign’s management and strategy is likely to be quieted. And she will no doubt go forth making the obvious comparison: that just like her husband 16 years ago, she is now well positioned to battle her way to the Democratic presidential nomination.

For all the glee in her camp, she still faces big challenges. In Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton is facing an opponent who has seemed over the last week or two to embody a movement rather than to be a mere political candidate. He has at times been an elusive target, lifted on the wind of nationwide anti-Washington climate change. She has often appeared to be frustrated in seeking to challenge his level of experience, his consistency, his positions or his electability against a Republican Party certain to fight hard to hold the White House.

Her performance suggested that Mr. Obama is certainly a vulnerable candidate. But the tough fight she has faced so far has made clear that the obstacles Mrs. Clinton had anticipated in preparing for her campaign for the White House — resistance to electing a woman as president; weariness with idea of another Clinton in the White House — have been compounded by the unusual nature of Mr. Obama’s candidacy.

“Obama is almost Teflon in terms of criticism,” said Bob Graham, the former Florida senator and a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, as he considered the challenge Mrs. Clinton faces. “He doesn’t have much of a record you can dissect,” adding that his advantages included “his freshness, newness, star status.”

As Mrs. Clinton leaves New Hampshire, she faces additional obstacles.

The next two contests — the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary — are being fought on what is not particularly welcome terrain for her. In Nevada, the powerful union of culinary workers has said it will put its muscle behind Mr. Obama. The South Carolina electorate is expected to be about 50 percent African-American.

The fast-paced calendar leading up to the 22 state contests on Feb. 5 gives Mrs. Clinton a limited amount of time to turn around the story line, to force the examination of Mr. Obama that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said her rival has been spared.

More than anything, though, the Clinton campaign has struggled as it sought to find right tone to raise what Mrs. Clinton’s aides said are legitimate questions about Mr. Obama’s record and credentials. The fact that Mr. Obama has seemed so slippery a target for the normally sure-footed Clinton team could be seen in Mr. Clinton’s red-faced exasperation Sunday night when he described the story of Mr. Obama as a “fairy tale” to New Hampshire voters.

At the start of the campaign, Mrs. Clinton’s advisers had believed that Mr. Obama’s promise of a different kind of politics — free of the sharp elbows and attacks of the past generation — would handcuff him from running an effective campaign. Now, with New Hampshire in the rearview mirror, the question is whether the reverse is true: if it is the Clinton campaign that is handcuffed by the aura that surrounds Mr. Obama; every time the Clintons or one of their surrogates attack Mr. Obama, they stand as reminders of the kind of politics that Mr. Obama has promised to transcend.

Mrs. Clinton is now still very much in this hunt. The Clinton campaigners know how to fight a political battle and seem to do their best when they are on the cliff. The Clinton campaign has already signaled that it will go after Mr. Obama, contending that he needs more inspection and vetting, that he is not ready to serve in the Oval Office, that he is too ideologically out of step with the country to win a general election.

The tightening of the race is likely to encourage Mrs. Clinton to head down this path. Mrs. Clinton, her aides said, had about $20 million in the bank.

Two states have voted, with just a handful of delegates; 25 more will in the next 30 days. And unlike New Hampshire and Iowa, many of those states do not permit independent voters to participate in Democratic contests. Mr. Obama will certainly come under all kinds of new examination and will be pushed — to use the phrase that Mrs. Clinton used, borrowing from Mario M. Cuomo — to see if he can match the poetry of his campaign promises with the prose of what it takes to govern.