Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Late on Tuesday afternoon, when exit polls indicated Sen. Barack Obama would defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, there was palpable relief from many Democrats -- including some avowed supporters of her presidential candidacy -- that the country soon would be finished with not only the Bushes but the Clintons. Four hours later came evidence of the political folly in underestimating the former president and his wife.

The exit polls were so wrong because they grossly understated the female vote in New Hampshire. Had the turnout of women there, which constituted an unprecedented 57 percent of the actual Democratic vote, been plugged in to exit interviews, a 2-percentage point Clinton victory would have been forecast. The unexpected female support in turn can be attributed to the Clinton style, which may not be pretty but is effective. Hillary Clinton's tears evoked sympathy for her, and Bill Clinton's sneers generated contempt for Obama.

That is a good lesson for Republican strategists who had been fretting about the difficulty of running against a fresh face like Obama and hoping for Clinton. It strengthens the case for Sen. John McCain, who after New Hampshire is the Republican front-runner. The man who spent six years in a communist prison and has been abused and reviled by Washington's K Street power brokers may be the only Republican who can cope with what the Clintons would throw at him.

It is difficult to exaggerate the funereal tone inside the Clinton camp on New Hampshire's election day. Sen. Clinton's campaigning there following her third-place Iowa finish was uninspired and uninspiring. Even her husband had seemed to lose his famous vibrancy. One Democratic old pro who supports her compared the atmosphere to the last days of Edmund Muskie's failed candidacy in 1972. Expectations of a double-digit defeat on Tuesday led to speculation of at least a "relaunched" post-New Hampshire campaign and even a withdrawal before a possible embarrassment in her home state New York primary on Feb. 5.

With that background, Sen. Clinton's lachrymose complaint in New Hampshire Monday that "this is very personal for me" was widely compared to Muskie's crying jag in Manchester 36 years ago that began his political downfall. But whereas Muskie's tears were involuntary, only the naive can believe Clinton was not artfully playing for sympathy from her sisters. It worked.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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