ROCHESTER, N.H. — By Wednesday, the headlines that had blared “Panic” and “On the Edge” were as infamous as “Dewey Beats Truman.” The advance stories written to explain Hillary’s defeat had all been sacrificed to the delete button.

The irrepressible Tim Russert, who had delivered her obit in ringing tones of certainty just a day earlier, sounded like a real estate agent digging through a ruined landscape for explanations: “Women, women, women.”

It was New Hampshire women who came to Hillary’s rescue after the near-death experience of Iowa. The 57 percent of Democratic voters who were women chose Clinton over Obama by 12 points. And she won with women over 65 by a stunning 30-point margin.

I never saw it coming. In dozens of interviews over the last days, I found women who were still waffling, still wavering, undecided. In a long buffet line at a Democratic Party dinner in Milford, a 66-year-old woman told me she was torn between her heart and her head. If Obama had won the heart of this long-term-care insurance saleswoman, Hillary was in trouble.

What happened? The story line is as divided — dare I say polarized? — as every other Hillary narrative. One line credits the strength she showed in the last debate and in her endless question-and-answer appearances. Another credits the “humanizing” moments, when she responded emotionally, especially to a woman who asked: “How do you do it?”

Matt Lauer posed the question baldly: Had it been “the issues or the tears” — those nonexistent “tears” — that had fueled her recovery? Did Hillary win because she was strong or vulnerable, the two ends on the bell curve of possibility for women leaders?

Or was it because she pulled back the mantle of change that had slipped so precariously off her tailored shoulders?

A year ago when Clinton announced her candidacy, the big question was whether the country was “ready for a woman.” But when the first woman to ever have a serious shot at the White House arrived in New Hampshire, she was tagged as the shopworn goods of “old politics.”

At the final debate, John Edwards attacked her as the embodiment of the “status quo.” At the Rochester Opera House, Obama preached against her as more of the “same old, same old.” She was more Clinton and less Hillary. It was if we had raced past history, without ever making it.

I don’t think the Hillary campaign saw this coming. After all, Hillary had been an icon of change since her Wellesley graduation speech. “While Bill talked about social change, I embodied it,” she once wrote.

As a law student, as Arkansas’ first lady, as the candidate’s wife who didn’t “bake cookies,” she said, “I had been turned into a symbol for women of my generation.” It must have seemed wholly fanciful to believe that Rush Limbaugh’s favorite target, the author of “Hillarycare,” would get labeled as old politics.

As they planned the presidential run, the Hillary campaign read the female playbook that says women have to prove — and prove — their experience and strength. She was cast as the most seasoned candidate, the commander in chief, the tough guy in the race. And then experience became a liability.

How many times have we been told that if you are seen as a woman you aren’t seen as strong; if you’re seen as strong, you aren’t seen as womanly? The tough guy nearly lost her place as a female change agent.

Then the moderator at the debate said: People “seem to like Barack Obama more.” And that empathetic Portsmouth woman asked: “How do you do it?” Is this when women’s heads shot up? When, exhausted and touched, she answered: “It’s not easy, and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do.”

On election eve, I was in the Rochester Opera House listening to an eloquent Obama. But many New Hampshire women were at home, as the television endlessly reran Hillary’s answers and emotions.

How many women had a change of, well, heart? How many women-of-a-certain-age who’ve lived through vast social change remembered being told they could lead or be liked? How many had their wrinkles and cleavage and cackles and feelings dissected at every move? For that matter, do any of them still work with men like the one in Salem who yelled at Hillary: “Iron my shirt!”

Status quo? Same old, same old? I don’t think so.

Hillary said she found her voice in New Hampshire. But she also found that very narrow line that women still have to walk. Hillary got her groove back.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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