Political pros and junkies like myself are looking at the results of yesterday's New Hampshire primary the way we look over a town hit by a twister: What just hit us? Sifting through the debris of confident predictions (my own included) that a second Obama win would signal the end of the Clinton dynasty, observers of this amazing race must now confront again the reality that swing voters frequently don't base their decisions on the comparative values of competing candidates. They make their decisions on far more fickle things.
How else may we consider the role of Hillary Clinton's emotional appeal in the past few days? During the last debate before the polls opened, one questioner sought Clinton's response to those who found her less "likable" than Barrack Obama. In a nearly perfect display of pathos, Clinton responded, "Well that hurts my feelings . . . But I'll try to go on." That latter phrase dripped with particular brilliance, leavened as it was with just the right amount of theatricality. Clinton spoke on at least two levels, to those who genuinely feel for her and for those who feel that this entire campaign is nothing less than surreal.
Then came the moment that many people believe turned the entire race around, when Clinton teared up in a New Hampshire diner after being asked how she endures the barbs of this campaign. Employing a wistful tone, she responded, "You know, I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backwards . . . This is very personal for me, it's not just political." I remember watching that scene a couple of times and finding the whole package a little to convenient. I should have known better, though, when Jenny saw this moment and responded that she'd never seen that side of the candidate. My wife, a conservative voter who could hardly spare a kind word for Hillary Clinton, was moved. I should have recognized right then that things had changed.
Sure enough, Hillary Clinton beat every expectation, even those held by her in-house master strategist Bill Clinton. Studying the flow and beats of last night's speeches, it's clear that Hillary gave a fine concession speech and Barack delivered an outstanding victory speech, except for the minor details that Hillary won and Barack was forced to settle for second. These two, more than all the rest, were clearly stunned by what happened.
So now we survey the terrain of an entirely new election cycle. Obama and Clinton are poised to fight on for weeks, if not months. John McCain, the guy who claims to be "older than dirt," who has "more scars than Frankenstein," has added his own back-from-the-dead tale to this race. And Michael Bloomberg, billionaire New York City mayor, contemplates a third-party run for the White House that promises still more drama. I'm a little bummed that I was so wrong about last night, but I'm still having a great time watching this fascinating political season.