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Seeking a Spark in New Hampshire

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Votes are stubborn little things. Votes have none of the sparkle and shine of campaign rhetoric. Votes don't soar; they sink in. Votes are precious to, and deeply felt by, the men and women who cast them, but the candidates stop catering to votes as soon as they're cast.

Iowa is yesterday's news. When we look back where the tall corn grows, in the rear-view media mirror, we see Cinderella among the cinders. The postmortems on polling will embarrass some of the pollsters for a day or two, but they'll fall into the memory hole quickly. There's always next year.

Donald Trump was humbled, even gracious, in thanking Iowans for second place, a place he hates, and his customary bravado was gone on the morning after. He's a fugitive balloon from the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, leaking ever so slowly. The balloon will stay up for a while, but it will never quite bounce and float like it once did. He told Iowans he loves Iowa so much he might buy a farm in the neighborhood, but no one expects him to really care much about them unless he returns as the Republican nominee.

Ted Cruz, the Iowa winner, confronts headwinds blowing wilder in New Hampshire. His evangelical message doesn't "resonate" among the toughened New Englanders, who are more secularized in their attitudes toward the universe. (And it doesn't thrill a lot of church folks to see their faith reduced to a stump speech, either.) New Hampshire voters prefer the road that may not be "less traveled," as Robert Frost would describe it, but one that's a different pathway to the top.

The Donald clearly remains the statistical favorite in New Hampshire, but his bombs bursting in air scatter sparks with diminished power after Iowa. He has only a point separating him from third place and Marco Rubio. The trophy for silver, unlike gold, requires polish to keep it shining.

Chris Christie calls Rubio "the boy in the bubble," but he's the candidate who emphasizes and epitomizes the American dream; he's the haunting presence in every one of Hillary Clinton's nightmares. He could cut into the youth vote she's already struggling with and drain the Hispanic votes she's counting on, beginning with the 29 electoral votes in Florida. She needs Hispanic help with her continuing "woman problem."

Feminism is more complicated than it used to be, and it's not just the young millennial feminists who can't relate to Clinton. There's fatigue among her oldest supporters, too -- those on the ramparts since the second-stage feminism of the 1960s set the direction for the newly empowered women of her generation. Some of these thoughtful feminists understand that making Clinton the first woman president is actually a goal smacking loudest of sexism.

"'There is nothing more sexist than wanting Hillary Clinton as president because she's a woman,'" writes Gail Sheehy in The New York Times. She's quoting women she spoke to on an ocean cruise organized by The Nation, that hoary liberal magazine. Seventy percent of the passengers she encountered were for Bernie Sanders and a third perceived Clinton as something close to evil incarnate. In interviews with more than 50 women of boomer age, Sheehy got a lasting impression of ambivalence toward Clinton.

Clinton hardly helped herself when she tried to defend herself as an outsider (the favorite angle this campaign cycle), saying, ""I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president." Gender politics or not, such talk is patronizing to women, and it's obvious pandering coming from a Clinton whose cozy Wall Street connections have padded her pockets with millions of dollars from the proceeds of her speeches. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and distaff politics makes even stranger feminists. For women who share pride in the belief, still widely held, that women are more nurturing than men, Clinton destroys that illusion.

"A lot of women vote from a compassionate, nurturing place," says the organizer of an influential political forum in New York, "and those are not qualities you feel from her."

Eight years ago, Clinton ran a campaign emphasizing that she was as tough as any man. This year she's getting an unwanted opportunity to prove it. Bernie Sanders won't touch her email controversy, but Marco Rubio says it disqualifies her: "Someone who cannot handle intelligence information appropriately cannot be commander in chief."

New Hampshire polls suggest that only Marco Rubio can defeat Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup. His hopeful, optimistic message appeals to someone looking for a fresh face. He can expect to be hit by everything short of sticks and stones this week. He's the one Clinton is watching most closely -- when she's not casting a frightened eye on Bernie Sanders.

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