Barack Obama didn’t even have time to get used to being the front-runner before he was the underdog again.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s unanticipated victory Tuesday night in New Hampshire evened up the Democratic presidential campaign and turned it into a two-person race.
The two elections within five days was enough to give a candidate whiplash. But now the pace of voting slows a bit and gives the candidates time to fine tune their strategies for what promises to be the most intense and expensive race in history.
“We are in it for the long run,” Clinton said in her victory speech.
Clinton’s win stunned both campaigns. She had been preparing to shift strategy to save her candidacy, while Obama had been hoping momentum would carry him to the nomination by Feb. 5 — when 22 states hold Democratic nominating contests.
Now the race will focus on who can score in the two states that come between now and them — Nevada on Jan. 19 and South Carolina on Jan. 26.
Clinton planned to meet privately with advisers Wednesday to plot strategy before returning to the campaign trail. Obama was heading to the New York senator’s back yard for a speech in northern New Jersey — an important state up for grabs on Feb. 5 — before heading to South Carolina on Thursday.
Obama’s advisers were so unprepared for defeat that they didn’t even try to explain his loss — some call it spin — to dozens of waiting reporters at his election party. Instead the senior strategists sent out a low-level staffer to explain they were letting Obama’s speech stand without further comment.
Obama portrayed Clinton as a kind of political grim reaper in his remarks to supporters who chanted “We want change!” and “Yes we can!” He didn’t mention Clinton by name, but referred to her chastising him for raising “false hopes” that he cannot deliver.
“We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check,” Obama said. “We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”
John Edwards’ loss in both Iowa and New Hampshire has diminished his chance for the nomination, but he’s staying in the race in hopes that neither of the top two candidates can secure the nomination or that one of them is forced out in the heated competition.
Clinton’s victory came at the hands of women, who voted in larger numbers than men and went for Clinton by 13 percentage points. Fewer young voters turned out for Obama as they did in Iowa, depriving him of crucial support. And he lost many independents to Republican John McCain, who won his party’s primary in the state.
Even as the polls incorrectly showed Obama rolling to another victory in New Hampshire, the Illinois senator foreshadowed what was ahead. “My name is Barack Obama,” he told reporters with a grin Tuesday while stumping for votes in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. “I am never a front-runner. I am always the underdog.”
Nedra Pickler covers the Democratic presidential campaign for The Associated Press.