In New Hampshire, Clinton Plays to the Independents

Under New Hampshire’s rules, independent voters can opt to participate in either party’s primary. They flocked to the Republicans in 2000, for instance, fueling John McCain’s rout of Mr. Bush – and denying Bill Bradley an upset with over Al Gore on the Democratic side. But the state’s ideological shift – long the last bastion of conservatism in the Northeast, New Hampshire voters threw out both of their Republican congressmen last year and also installed a Democratic legislature for the first time since the Civil War – along with the low standing of the national G.O.P. should mean that independents will favor the Democratic race in ’08.

Those independent voters probably aren’t particularly alarmed by Mrs. Clinton’s lack of stridency on Iraq, just as they are probably comforted by the general competence and policy command she showed throughout the rest of the debate.

Indeed, late in the debate, Mrs. Clinton led a rebellion among the candidates against Mr. Blitzer’s incessant use of the raise-your-hand-if-you-would-do-this school of questioning. Instead of playing along when he asked who would favor military action in Darfur, Mrs. Clinton reminded him that “one of the jobs of being President is to be very rational in approaching these kinds of situations, and I don’t think it’s helpful to be talking about these kinds of hypotheticals.” The audience broke into applause. It was, it seemed, a presidential moment – especially to an independent voter.

Contrast that with Mr. Edwards and his black-and-white rhetoric on Iraq, health care and other issues near and dear to the left. To a national Democratic Party whose anti-war base feels betrayed by their own Congressional leaders on Iraq, Mr. Edwards’ critiques of Mrs. Clinton – and even Mr. Obama – resonated. But that base holds more sway in Iowa – where Mr. Edward has led in polls for a year now – than in New Hampshire, where Mrs. Clinton scored 34 percent in the latest survey, well ahead of Mr. Edwards (15 percent) and Mr. Obama (18 percent).

Mrs. Clinton did tend to the base on other issues, endorsing the demise of her husband’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the inclusion of openly gay people in the military (invoking a the words of a Republican, Barry Goldwater, in doing so) and affirming her support for universal health care. And, notably, she produced the night’s best laugh line. Observing that the Bush administration’s ideas of diplomacy is limited to sending Condoleezza Rice on periodic trips around the world, she said: “Occasionally, they even send Dick Cheney – and that’s hardly diplomatic, in my view.”

While Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards provided the most memorable moments of the night, Mr. Obama held his own. Not only did he knock Mr. Edwards for his ’02 war vote, he also went toe-to-toe with him on health care. In the longest back-and-forth of the evening, the two quibbled about the merits of their plans, with Mr. Edwards criticizing Mr. Obama’s for not mandating coverage for everyone.

Mr. Obama stood his ground, though, and had the last laugh – pointing out that his plan does mandate coverage for children after Mr. Edwards claimed it didn’t. The wonkish exchange was invaluable to Mr. Obama, given the skepticism he has faced over his lack of experience in national politics and policy-making.

But it was Mr. Edwards who tried to make his move tonight, and it was Mrs. Clinton who was most vulnerable to his gambit. They both had reason to walk away satisfied.