With a disappointing second-place showing in New Hampshire, Barack Obama heads to South Carolina Thursday without the wind at his back and facing an overhauled, revitalized campaign by Hillary Clinton.
Obama's narrow defeat at the hands of the Senator he just a few days earlier had clobbered in Iowa deprived the challenger of the clear and undisputed momentum he had enjoyed after Iowa. The outcome instead sends the Democratic race into several weeks of tough and expensive, hedgerow-to-hedgerow combat. About the only thing that is certain now is that the race will remain unclear for some time to come.
Obama conceded the New Hampshire race to Clinton last night but reminded his supporters, "A few weeks ago, no one could have imagined what we did here tonight. We always knew our climb would be steep."
It was a climb that turned out to be particularly steep with women voters. Though Obama beat Clinton among men, she bested him by a wider margin among women (especially unmarried women), who vote in New Hampshire in unusually large numbers. And while Obama did better than Clinton among independents, that swing group of voters did not appear to vote in proportions that many expected and of those, more than expected seemed to opt for McCain. Clinton prevailed amongst registered Democrats, a trend that could be crucial in many states whose upcoming primaries are closed to independents.
While Clinton retooled her operation Tuesday night in the wake of her victory, there was no indication that a similar shuffle was likely in Obama's camp, and campaign officials indicated none was necessary. "You don't break up a winning team," said a top campaign fund raiser.
But the Obama campaign is now settling in for a more prolonged siege of, and by, the Clinton campaign than many might have expected just a few days ago. The heady moments after Iowa have given way to a grittier roadmap going forward and Obama's challenges may be increasing as the Clinton operation is reborn.
His rival will now continue to have access to plenty of money to contest his unusual campaign in all of the states over the next few weeks, including Nevada, South Carolina, New York and California. He has had to watch Clinton march on to his rhetorical ground, as she overhauls her on-the-stump-image and tries to make the theme of change her new best friend. And perhaps most importantly, she has been kicked to the ground by the voters in the first fortnight of the new year and gotten back on her feet a huge psychological boost in politics that allows a candidate to say, as her husband did 15 years ago, that she's making a comeback.
Against all that, Obama is not without his own advantages. First, he remains the new kid in the race in a year when change is the undisputed theme. He has proven his ability to reach out to independent voters, the single most important constituency in a general election. And perhaps most important now, he too has been tested under intense pressure before.
Obama's success in the race thus far has its roots in an unlikely decision the candidate made several months ago when he ignored the advice of just about everyone in his circle to strip the bipartisan wrapper off his new kind of campaign and go after Clinton with hammer and tongs.
Last fall, as Clinton surged ahead of Obama by as much as 20 points in the polls, Obama's financial backers and many of his political advisers pressed him to drop the nice-guy approach and take a much harder line with Clinton. But Obama refused. He couldn't do that, he said, and besides, such an old-fashioned approach ran counter to the whole strategic design the campaign: to build a coalition of Democrats, independents and even Republicans for a new kind of bipartisan approach to solving the nation's problems.
At the time, it was a highly risky and controversial call. And many of those who pressured him to make a change believed Obama's decision might cost him the nomination. "He was under enormous pressure to junk the antipolitics campaign and really go back at her," said one adviser who was part of the push. "But he wouldn't do it. That took discipline. "
Obama campaign officials retold that story Tuesday when asked if the insurgent candidate would be blown off course now with all the attention and criticism that will come as the race enters the next phase. "He showed last fall that he understood what this was all about by staying totally centered, totally grounded and not taking the advice that lots and lots of people were giving him. From Labor Day until Clinton slipped in late October, all of the experienced hands all gave the same advice: 'You gotta' get down, get dirty, get tough.' And he said no."
Now, Obama may need those disciplined muscles if he plans to repulse whatever may be coming his way from the Clinton machine.
Moreover, several campaign advisers acknowledged, Obama will be pressured by all sorts of people to change his message and approach as the race broadens beyond the two states and again take up a sharper knife in his fight with Hillary. That would be, they add, a mistake. Obama's core message of inviting Americans to work together to bring about changes in health care, education, foreign policy and energy policy is not going to change, they say. And it would be dangerous to try. "His challenge is to stay disciplined and stay on the track," said one adviser. "I don't see a shift in any way, shape or form. If you believe that this has not been a fluke from the start, and we do, then there should be no shift as you go to a bigger audience."
Of course, Obama will be more closely scrutinized now. He will have news organizations and rival operations assessing his voting records, personal investments and stump speeches for even a whisper of inconsistency or impropriety.
Another challenge will come when Congress returns to session full-time and some of Obama's allies (and enemies) in Washington try to organize votes that they believe will either help (or hurt) the front-runner. Obama is a sitting senator and will have to spend some time in the capital. But, added one adviser, "He oughta stay out of Washington as much as he can.
Not that he has much choice. Facing a revitalized Clinton and more than 20 states in one day on February 5 Obama won't be seeing a lot of the Washington he wants so badly to change at least, not anytime soon.