NASHUA, N.H.—Barack Obama and his supporters were brought down to earth in stunning fashion here tonight after their post-Iowa days in the stratosphere.
"Tonight belongs to you," Mr. Obama told the crowd in his concession speech. But, really, it belonged to Hillary Clinton, who pulled off a shock victory that put an abrupt end to Obama’s momentum and re-established her as the Democratic frontrunner.
The obituaries written for her campaign in recent days now seem hopelessly premature.
The night’s events had a disorientating effect upon the large crowd that turned up here at Nashua South High School, confident of an Obama victory.
As they filed out, many tried to put on a brave face. But their body language told a different story—one of dejection and confusion.
"I feel bad," Trisha Swonger, 48, of Merrimack said. "I feel like I should write Michelle Obama an apology. I wanted us to deliver a little better."
Swonger added that in conversations with female friends in the past 24 hours, she was "disappointed that a lot of women were swung by that little breakdown she (Clinton) had yesterday. I think we have to get over that as women."
21-year-old student Bill Cudney, of Brookline, N.H, said that New Hampshire was a "really tricky state. A lot of finicky people can change at the last minute."
Cudney said he was "disappointed with the result but optimistic about how things are going to go." His demeanor did not seem overly hopeful, however.
The crowd did at least have its spirits lifted by Obama’s speech. Bringing back a slogan from his victorious 2004 Senate run, he led them in a chant of "Yes we can."
Those three words, Obama said, were "whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail through the darkest of nights." And, he asserted, they would "ring from coast to coast" during the rest of his campaign.
Obama was already looking ahead in the speech, making specific mention of the upcoming primary states of South Carolina and Nevada.
And, though he congratulated Clinton on her success, he also warned his audience that the "chorus of cynics will only grow louder and more dissonant" in the times ahead.
He told his supporters that they could become "the new majority who can lead this nation out of a long political darkness."
Tonight was itself a bleak time for his most passionate backers, however.
The first tremors of concern ran through the crowd streaming in to the cavernous gymnasium here just after 8 p.m., as early returns showed Obama lagging Clinton by two per cent and exit polls suggested the race was too close to call.
At 8.56 p.m., as the single giant video screen in the arena showed Clinton opening up a six per cent lead, an uneasy stillness settled over the crowd.
Dave Gourley, a 53-year-old computer programmer from Rye, N.H., said at that point that he was "very surprised" and that he had "expected it to be much more for Obama."
As it became apparent that a result was not going to be arrived at for some time, members of the initially feverish crowd pulled books or magazines from their pockets and settled in for a long night. Still, each diminution of Clinton’s lead brought loud cheers while figures showing a restoration of that lead were met with silence.
Questions will inevitably arise as to why the polls were so wrong. Pundits seem destined to focus upon the same uncharacteristic show of emotion by Clinton yesterday that Trisha Swonger noticed influencing her friends.
Was that a reverse ‘Muskie moment’, presenting a more sympathetic side of the former First Lady? Or did her sharper attacks on Obama in recent days have an effect?
Either way, Obama’s chances of winning the nomination have been dealt a significant blow by the famously unpredictable voters of New Hampshire.
In his speech, Obama insisted that a short time ago, "No one imagined we’d have accomplished what we did here tonight."
That may be true. But earlier today no-one, even in Clinton’s team, imagined him going down to such a dramatic defeat.