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.
Bill Clinton's accompanying belittling of Obama as unqualified ("the biggest fairytale I've ever seen") was similarly regarded within the party as a serious blunder. That indeed was the reaction from the Obama camp. Obama himself was condescending about his powerful detractor: "I understand he's feeling a little frustrated right now." In fact, an attack by so powerful and popular a Democratic icon should have been taken seriously by the neophyte candidate.
In New Hampshire during the run-up to the primary, several prominent Republicans expressed to me their regret that they would not have the opportunity to run against a tired, vulnerable Hillary Clinton and had no strategy whatever for contesting a fresh, appealing Barack Obama. An exception to that mindset is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime McCain adviser who feels Clinton would be not only more experienced but a far more formidable contestant than Obama.
McCain, though he is far from beloved in his own party's ranks, is perhaps better equipped to withstand the battering he would receive from the Clintons and be able to respond in kind. In the intense four days of New Hampshire campaigning following the Iowa caucuses, McCain was the subject of unremitting attack from Mitt Romney because of his support for President Bush's immigration reform. He was able to turn aside those attacks by effectively denying that he sought amnesty for illegal aliens.
The lesson of New Hampshire for Obama's campaign should be that rock-star popularity is not sufficient to take on the Clintons, who for a decade have given no quarter to their political foes. When it seemed that Obama would win in New Hampshire, the Clinton camp was preparing an attack strategy against him. Since Obama is favored in the next big primary test in South Carolina on Jan. 26, he can expect more of the same ahead.