How Hillary Turned It Around

  • Share
  • Read Later
Elise Amendola / AP

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reacts at her Democratic primary election night victory rally in Manchester, N.H., January 8, 2008.

This time, the faces on the stage behind her were young and fresh, not the familiar — and yes, old ones — of the Clinton Administration years. Her larger-than-life husband moved in for the briefest of embraces, and then disappeared. Just in case anyone missed the symbolism, Hillary Clinton made everything explicit with the opening notes of a New Hampshire primary victory speech that had seemed unlikely, even to those around her, just hours before: "Over the last week, I listened to you," said Clinton. "And in the process, I found my own voice."

Clinton's speech was merely the fanfare for what aides say will be a dramatic transformation of her campaign. It starts with the message. One of the things Clinton learned from her defeat in Iowa, those around her say, is that her emphasis on experience and readiness was missing its mark. Her speech Tuesday night was less about her and more about the voters: the ones who have lost their mortgages, who can't afford health care and can't get student loans. "Too many have been invisible for too long," she said. "Well, you are not invisible to me." Where she had begun the race declaring she was "in it to win," you could almost hear the gears grinding toward a new message as Clinton shifted her focus outward on Tuesday night: "We are in it for the American people."

Everyone in the Clinton campaign knew that Tuesday evening would be a chance to reframe the race. But throughout primary day they believed the reframing would follow a New Hampshire loss to Barack Obama — possibly by a double-digit margin, according to some polls and the campaign's own worst fears. "I was with them all day," said one friend, who watched Clinton and her team write the first drafts of her speech in a Concord hotel suite. "They did not see this coming. No one did." Except, perhaps, you know who; the friend said that at one point during the afternoon, Bill Clinton confided, "You know something, I think we can do something here."

How, exactly, that unlikely something happened was the result of a combination of forces that the campaign itself is only beginning to untangle. Part of it was the boring stuff — the dull, unglamorous work put in by a disciplined ground operation organized by veteran operative Nick Clemons. Late in the game, the campaign also brought in Michael Whouley, who had helped deliver the state for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

A lot of it, though, came from Clinton herself. In the tumultuous days before the primary, she showed sides of herself both tougher and softer than previously known. Clinton lashed out at Barack Obama and John Edwards in Saturday night's debate, visibly angry in a way voters had not seen before. But on Monday, she teared up when asked how she was coping with the campaign — displaying the kind of emotion that people would associate far more with Bill Clinton than with his wife. Said one prominent Democratic strategist not affiliated with the campaign: "Yesterday helped her a lot with women."

Indeed, it did — especially with unmarried women, a key component of the Democratic base. One campaign adviser noted that where Obama won that demographic by 13 percentage points in Iowa, Clinton carried it by 17 points in New Hampshire — a 30-point shift over in the course of five days. (It also couldn't have hurt that a great number of men from the punditocracy spent the hours before the primary gleefully anticipating a Clinton catastrophe.)

Besides message and focus, there will be other changes in the Clinton campaign, including two new additions: Maggie Williams, who was Hillary Clinton's fiercely loyal chief of staff when she was First Lady, and Doug Sosnik, who was a top aide to her husband. "Maggie will make her feel more comfortable; Doug will make him feel more comfortable," said one campaign adviser. "And they've both been through this before." For now at least, chief strategist Mark Penn — whom many had blamed for failing to recognize the larger forces that had been at work in her Iowa defeat — will remain with the campaign.

The road ahead is still long and challenging for Clinton. The race she once expected to finish cleanly and quickly is now shaping up as an exercise in harvesting convention delegates one grueling state at a time. The rules under which delegates are allocated — divided proportionally in each state, rather than the winner-take-all system that the Republicans use in many states — make it hard for any Democrat to deliver a knockout blow in just a few contests. But her victory in New Hampshire has staved off a mass defection of fund raisers and prominent endorsing Democrats, as well as the more than 150 "superdelegates" — elected officials, party leaders and others who are delegates by virtue of the positions they hold — who had pledged their support.

But at least for one night, Hillary Clinton and those around her aren't playing defense. They've got their second chance.