Monday, January 7, 2008

Thoughts on New Hampshire

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 378

I finally got a chance last night to watch a recording of the ABC/WMUR/Facebook debate. Here are some quick thoughts, combined with general observations about the post-Iowa state of things.

Hillary Clinton

With a stinging third place finish for Hillary Clinton in Iowa still very fresh in the public mind, Saturday's debate presented Clinton with a unique opportunity to show a watching world what, if anything, she learned from the first electoral setback of her career. Unfortunately for Clinton, what the audience saw was a hunkered down candidate, gritting her teeth through what she too-evidently views as a mercifully abbreviated campaign in yet another pesky small state of negligible importance and counting the days until she can wage the sort of media-driven national campaign she would clearly be more comfortable running. She appeared neither relaxed, nor reevaluative, nor inclined in the slightest to do a single thing differently today than she was doing a week ago. Cranky and on defense, Clinton appeared more primed for an argument than prepped for a debate.

Which, I think, reflects the state of things within the Clinton campaign generally, and raises the question: did you guys have no Plan B? Did no one in the Clinton campaign ever once raise a hand and posit a couple of What Ifs: What If one day the sun did not rise in the East, What If the birds did not fly south for the winter, and What If Hillary Clinton actually lost in Iowa? As it is, Hillary Clinton and her campaign have responded to last Thursday's result with increasingly negative attacks/drawing sharp distinctions (take your pick) on Barack Obama, while simultaneously trying to outdo him at promoting "change" as a campaign mantra. Three words on Hillary Clinton: in deep trouble.

John Edwards

The quickest of scans through posts on this site tagged "John Edwards" will reveal that I am not his biggest fan. So sit down before you read this next part: I think John Edwards won the debate Saturday night. Edwards won not because of any brilliant answers, per se, although his "she didn't make these kinds of attacks when she was ahead" molotov at Hillary Clinton was hands-down the best line of the night. No, John Edwards won at St. Anselm because of what that debate revealed about his strategy coming out of Iowa.

Saturday night saw John Edwards punching away at his mainstay populist themes and steering pretty clear of directly hitting either Obama or Richardson, keeping himself focused on attacking a newly vulnerable Hillary Clinton. Politically, this is absolutely the right course of action for John Edwards on a number of levels.

Placing second in Iowa after four years of non-stop campaigning here was almost as bad for John Edwards as placing third was for Hillary Clinton. But with the race now indisputably a three-way contest between himself, Obama and Clinton (sorry, Governor Richardson), Edwards is clearly now focused on simply hanging in there through February 5 and beyond in the near-certain knowledge that either Obama or Clinton will drop out at some point, which then injects Edwards into the center of the two-person race he's been positioning himself for since at least the middle of last summer when he decided it was no more mister nice guy and went angry populist. John Edwards now doesn't have to win anything to achieve his central strategic goal for at least the next two months. All he has to do is stay competitive until one or the other of his principal opponents drops. That is brilliant strategic political thinking from John Edwards, which leaves me nearly as impressed as I am surprised.

Barack Obama

Saturday night was one of Barack Obama's more comfortable debate performances, I thought. He finally found his voice on health care, dealing effectively with Clinton's charge that his plan is "not universal," which will pay dividends for him as the campaign progresses. I also found fascinating the way in which Obama made tactical alliance with John Edwards in response to some of Clinton's points. That tactic makes Obama and Edwards seem collegial and of good will, while leaving Clinton looking isolated and shrill. There's not much that Clinton can do in response, save to cry foul for "piling on," which, you may recall, served her poorly in Iowa. But the next time you hear Hillary Clinton and her campaign complaining that Obama is getting a free ride in the media, know that this is part of what she's talking about.

Bill Richardson

Let's save lots of keystrokes for everyone right now and simply admit that Bill Richardson has won the Likability Primary coming out of Iowa. And then let's save further untold keystrokes by admitting that's the only primary he's likely to win this year.

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