By E.J. Dionne Jr.
MANCHESTER, N.H.—Quietly but systematically, Hillary Clinton is building a firewall in New Hampshire. She can afford to lose the Iowa caucuses as long as she can win here. She can’t afford to lose both states.
As a result, say Democrats with long experience in state politics, Clinton has been doing everything “the New Hampshire way.” She has carefully cultivated strong personal ties that go back to her husband’s 1992 campaign and has built an organization with deep local roots. Although a victory by Barack Obama in Iowa could still propel him to a triumph here, Clinton is setting herself up to withstand an Obama surge by using New Hampshire to become, if necessary, the second Comeback Kid.
The latest poll of likely Democratic primary voters, released on Thursday by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, found Clinton with a commanding 42.6 percent. Obama had 21.5 percent and John Edwards, 13.9 percent.
Clinton’s advantage reflects the difficulties Obama has had in turning the enthusiasm he created in the early days of his campaign into enduring support. “Barack seems flat,” said Arnie Arnesen, a former Democratic candidate for governor who is now a broadcaster and commentator. “The magic we experienced in December hasn’t been sustained.”
Obama’s rock star quality may actually be getting in his way. Gray Chynoweth, an attorney who is president of the state’s Young Democrats—and is, like Arnesen, neutral in the contest—said he admires Obama and was “excited to be part of his first visit to the state.”
But, Chynoweth adds: “There’s a risk—partly because he’s always surrounded by Secret Service guys—that some people feel that Obama might think of himself as too cool for school.” But Secret Service protection, which Clinton also gets, is only part of Obama’s problem. The large crowds Obama draws hinder his ability to engage in traditional campaigning. “People here don’t just expect you to be on the stage,” Chynoweth said. “They expect you to be out in the audience among the people.”
Obama’s charisma causes him other problems. Arnesen said that while Clinton’s message “is very much about the voters,” Obama’s is “very much about himself” and his personal capacity to create change.
Cinde Warmington, who chairs the Democratic Party in the town of Gilford and supports Chris Dodd, said she likes Obama but was struck by a speech given by Michelle Obama declaring that her husband “really is special.” This positive attribute, Warmington said, can also “come across as a sense of detachment,” or even what some here perceive as an above-the-fray superiority.
Chynoweth said Obama tries hard to fight this perception. “He always says that ‘I’m just a vehicle for this message,’” Chynoweth said. “But in a weird way, when he’s saying it’s not about him, that makes people think it’s still about him. It’s a tough box to be in.”
Jim Demers, who co-chairs Obama’s campaign here, believes Obama will perform far better in the New Hampshire primary than current polling suggests because of his appeal to independent voters—they are called “undeclared” here—who can vote in either party’s contest. And he notes that Obama has campaigned intensively in small groups, particularly at the house parties for which New Hampshire is famous.
But Demers points to a fascinating dynamic which—although he doesn’t say so—may also be helping Clinton. Obama’s candidacy, he argues, “sucked the energy out of the rest of the pack,” hurting Edwards and others who might have emerged as major challengers to Clinton. Thus, instead of a campaign organized in opposition to Clinton, the fascination with Obama has, up to now, made her less of a target.
And Ray Buckley, the Democratic state chair who is being so studiously neutral that he says he’ll write in Jimmy Carter’s name on primary day, argued that the strong reception Obama received here last December pushed Clinton “to get in much earlier” and organize the state more intensively. Several Democrats also said Clinton’s claim that she can deal with the Republican “attack machine” rings truer to an angry party than Obama’s call for an end to partisan polarization—the very appeal Demers hopes will eventually draw independents to Obama.
The paradox for Obama is that catching up may require him to make Clinton—and her views and electability—more of an issue than he is. It may not come naturally, but “No More Mr. Nice Guy” may have to become his campaign anthem.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group