New Hampshire’s Waiting Game is Fine by Hillary

DURHAM, NH—Yesterday, at the University of New Hampshire’s athletic complex in Durham—where the school’s long-suffering Wildcats hoops team nursed the

DURHAM, NH—Yesterday, at the University of New Hampshire’s athletic complex in Durham—where the school’s long-suffering Wildcats hoops team nursed the longest home court losing streak in college basketball history in the early 1990s—a few hundred students, faculty members, and local residents milled around late in the afternoon, a half-hour after Hillary Clinton’s speech was supposed to begin.

“She’s going to lose points!” exclaimed one mystified undergrad, an African native unaccustomed to the concept of Clinton Standard Time.

“There are old people here. They don’t like to wait!”

Actually, compared to her notoriously tardy husband, Mrs. Clinton was early. She showed up just a few minutes later to a warm, if not raucous, welcome. Her speech, designed to launch an outreach effort to college-age voters, was littered with platitudes and was otherwise unremarkable, with Mrs. Clinton declaring her opposition to “cronyism, corruption, and incompetence” and asserting that women and men ought to be treated equally. She exited to more subdued cheers without once mentioning any of her Democratic rivals.

But waiting around has become something of a theme lately for Democrats in New Hampshire, where Mrs. Clinton embarked on a two-day campaign swing Thursday afternoon.

Mrs. Clinton’s visit to the state comes as New Hampshire’s political establishment is standing by idly, refusing to set a date for its presidential primary until Senator Carl Levin of Michigan—who covets the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation status for his own state—makes the first move. And so until William Gardner, New Hampshire’s tight-lipped secretary of state, officially says otherwise, it remains theoretically possible that the primary, which was held in late February not too many elections ago, will take place sometime next month, in December 2007.

Not that anyone expects that to happen.

“The sense that this thing can move to 2007 is kind of a feint,” one member of the state’s Democratic committee told me, “because…this is death if we do this. It will be so egregious that we’ve moved into 2007, and people will never forget it and never forgive us.”

The consensus view is that Mr. Gardner will ultimately set the date for Tuesday, January 8, five days after Iowa has scheduled its lead-off caucuses and a week before the date Michigan has tentatively set aside for its primary. Mr. Levin has suggested that Michigan’s Democrats might schedule caucuses for January 8 at the last minute—after New Hampshire formally claims the date for itself.

“All we’re waiting for is for (Michigan Senator) Carl Levin to give up,” the same state committee member said, “and Carl Levin can’t win as long as Bill Gardner is here, because they have to organize their caucuses in Michigan, which is a lot more complicated. (Gardner) can out-wait Levin.”

And if that’s the endgame for this waiting game, then it may be good news for the woman who kept all those Democrats waiting in Durham and Newington on Thursday.

The reason is simple. There has traditionally been an eight-day window between Iowa and New Hampshire, just enough time for candidates to compensate for the deck-shuffling effects of the Iowa bounce. In 2008, that window will likely shrink to five days—three fewer days for Mrs. Clinton’s now-formidable lead New Hampshire lead to erode in the event that one of her foes emerges from Iowa what George H.W. Bush once called “the Big Mo.”

History confirms the significance of the eight-day (or longer) window. In 2004, Howard Dean was the undisputed New Hampshire front-runner when caucus day arrived in Iowa, while John Kerry lagged far behind. But it took several days after the caucuses—in which Dr. Dean finished a distant third and let loose his infamous scream—for Mr. Kerry to usurp the front-runner’s mantle in New Hampshire. A shorter window would have made for a much closer primary in 2004, and possibly even a Dean victory. Something similar played out in 1984, when Gary Hart “won” Iowa (he finished a distant second to Walter Mondale, but the media treated him like a breakout sensation) but still took nearly a week to overtake Mr. Mondale in New Hampshire, ultimately winning the primary by 13 points.

Right now, Mrs. Clinton holds double-digit leads in all New Hampshire polls, a margin that has stretched past 20 points in some. But in Iowa, she’s in a three-way dogfight with Barack Obama and John Edwards, both of whom are calculating that a score in Iowa will create a slingshot effect.

“A win in Iowa quickly converts people, like all of a sudden Dean disappeared here,” the Democratic state committeeman, who isn’t yet committed to any candidates, said. “But five days isn’t a lot to do that.”

Then again, if you look at the Republican side, a longer window between Iowa and New Hampshire has actually favored the front-runner—like George H.W. Bush, who lost his New Hampshire lead to Bob Dole in the days after the 1988 Iowa caucuses, only to reclaim it over the final pre-primary weekend. And that was eight years after Mr. Bush’s “Big Mo” carried him into a lead in New Hampshire, which he lost when Ronald Reagan banged on a table and declared that “I paid for this microphone.”

Which model will fit the Democrats in 2008? That’s the kind of conversation Granite Staters are having these days – whether they’re waiting for Mrs. Clinton to show up or for Carl Levin to blink.

New Hampshire’s Waiting Game is Fine by Hillary