"A tidal wave," said a stunned Bill Clinton of Barack Obama's surge, and it's hard to improve on his metaphor. With voters thronging to the polls in New Hampshire, threatening to overwhelm the supply of ballots, the Illinois senator appeared to be riding a long-building, now powerfully cresting surge to his second big victory in five days.
The same force threatened to sink Sen. Hillary Clinton's hopes for the Democratic nomination. Polls close at 7 p.m. EST in some parts of the state; 8 p.m. EST in others.
"We're seeing tremendous excitement and enthusiasm all over the state," New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch said. Chalk it up to high stakes, aggressive organizing, well-known candidates, the lack of an incumbentnot to mention weather so unseasonably fine that a voter might feel almost lucky to be waiting in line outside a voting station.
And beyond all that, the groundswell under the wave, is a hunger for something new. In interviews and focus groups all over the state, votersespecially Democratsexpressed this appetite. "It's not about change," said pollster Frank Luntz. "It's about a new beginning. Democrats want to wipe the slate clean."
That's not what Hillary Clinton had hoped to hear 16 years after her now snowy-haired husband survived a wild ride in New Hampshire on his way to the White House. Dreams of a Clinton restoration have given way to frantic rumors and desperate strategy sessions. Political operatives and journalists traded hints of staff shake-ups, insider infighting and hail-Mary gambles to somehow stem the Obama tide.
Meanwhile, former senator John Edwards hoped to repeat his Iowa performance, squeezing past Clinton into second-place. He campaigned relentlessly in the closing days, crisscrossing New Hampshire around the clock, but polls showed him well behind the former First Lady.
The Republican picture was less clear-cutall question marks, close calls, and sagging spirits. John McCain, the Arizona senator whose campaign spent the summer in ICU, was coming on strong in a bid to repeat his 2000 New Hampshire victory. But then former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney dominated the final pre-election debate, a feat he followed up with a massive turnout operation that included 100,000 phone calls to prospective voters. Romney's well-funded campaign took a big hit in Iowa on Thursday, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee whipped him badly, and a second loss in New Hampshirewhere Romney owns a summer home might finish him off.
Romney projected confidence Tuesday afternoon. All those phone calls, he said, persuaded him that voters making last-minute decisions were breaking strongly in his direction. McCain was equally upbeat, having slept in the same room he occupied prior to his 2000 landslide. "There is no superstition I won't indulge," he said.
McCain or Romney: Leading Republicans in Washington and in statehouses around the country watched urgently to spot the winner, who is expected to become the prime alternative to Huckabee in South Carolina's primary on Jan. 19.
No one was looking for Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, to do well in Yankee New Hampshire. He spent the days leading up to the primary cooking up photo ops and retooling his Iowa-focused message for a more national audience. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson continued to underperform their supporters' early hopes, while the libertarian contrarian Ron Paul continued to exert his narrow but intense appeal.
The frustration of the Clintons over Obama's success deepened in the final hours in New Hampshire. Bill Clinton, who once was the charismatic 40-something himself, shook his now-snowy head in anger as he dubbed Obama's claim to have been consistently against the war the "biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." He and others in the campaign suggested that the only reason Obama was riding the wave was that the media gave him a surfboard. Hillary Clinton's frustrations became palpable when her eyes welled with tears during an election-eve campaign event.
Leading Republicans, readjusting their sights after years spent anticipating a race against Hillary, noticed the same thing. Obama is "a blank canvas where voters have projected their dreams and been enthralled with his voice, looks and demeanor," said former White House political director Ed Rogers. "After 11 months of scrutiny, let's see how he holds up."