Hillary’s Firewall

So what if Hillary Clinton loses in Iowa? A new conventional wisdom is taking hold that Barack Obama beats her

So what if Hillary Clinton loses in Iowa?

A new conventional wisdom is taking hold that Barack Obama beats her there, he could run away with the nomination.

It’s a line of thinking the Clinton campaign should encourage.

The reason is simple: If the Clinton Machine has a firewall anywhere, it’s in New Hampshire, where the combination of her husband’s lingering sentimental appeal and an unprecedentedly relentless and well-organized pursuit of the Democratic establishment gives her a considerable leg-up on the competition.

If she does falter in Iowa, the media will immediately portray New Hampshire, which votes five days later, as a do-or-die test for the former First Lady. Her campaign will be described with words like “teetering” and “imperiled.” She will be compared, baselessly but endlessly, to Howard Dean.

What a perfect set-up for a dramatic, bounce-back victory—the kind that would allow her to lay claim to the same “Comeback Kid” mantle her husband seized 16 years ago.

New Hampshire is the ideal place for Mrs. Clinton to make a stand, and her campaign has known it from Day One. Geographically compact and home to a Democratic primary universe of perhaps 200,000, it is a state where personal connections are critical to any campaign. The Clinton Machine has masterfully exploited its star power and perceived inevitability to dazzle and overwhelm the locals.

Start with the non-hostile takeover of the state’s Democratic organization that Mrs. Clinton engineered as soon as she entered the race, signing on its key staffers for top roles in her Granite State operation. She also claimed the endorsement of Kathleen Sullivan, who stepped down earlier this year after chairing the state party for eight years. This means that Mrs. Clinton’s organization is run by the same people who led the state party to unparalleled heights this decade – historic victories in gubernatorial, congressional, state legislative and even county races.

What’s more, bringing in Mrs. Sullivan, a household name to party activists across the state, and other prominent insider figures only reinforced the sense of inevitability that the Clinton Machine desperately wants to telegraph to other party leaders and to its rank-and-file. And that perceived inevitability, in turn, fueled Mrs. Clinton’s main New Hampshire objective for 2007: to gobble up as many endorsements—from anyone with any kind of a title – as humanly possible.

She has had remarkable success in doing so—and this is where the star power of the Clinton machine comes in. Targeted endorsers are identified by Mrs. Clinton’s state political operation—people who have no trouble identifying who’s who in New Hampshire Democratic politics—and are given the red carpet treatment: A personal meeting with Mrs. Clinton (or maybe even Bill), regular progress reports from higher-ups in the campaign, V.I.P. treatment at Clinton events, complimentary invitations to top-dollar fund-raising galas (and to the even more exclusive fundraisers-within-fundraisers), and even personal phone calls from the biggest-name national figures to endorse Mrs. Clinton—like Wesley Clark and Madeleine Albright.

Then there’s the Bill Factor. The Comeback Kid’s reputation among New Hampshire Democrats has only grown since he won just over 25 percent in the 1992 primary. He carried the state twice in general elections and returned several times as President, always making sure to pay tribute to the people who could have kicked him when he was down but didn’t. New Hampshire Democrats relish their pivotal role in the story of Mr. Clinton’s rise—and plenty of them would like to author Chapter Two in 2008.

Equally noteworthy is that the Obama campaign’s relative disengagement from the game the Clintons are playing in New Hampshire.

Democrats in the state report that Mr. Obama actually has a larger staff than Mrs. Clinton and has more volunteers knocking on doors on any given weekend. But Mr. Obama’s operation is not geared toward massaging the egos of local political leaders. His campaign is not primarily driven by veterans of state politics, and he hasn’t courted the average state senator with anything approaching Mrs. Clinton’s intensity. In this sense, his New Hampshire organization calls to mind Howard Dean’s ill-fated “Perfect Storm” of 2004, when thousands of idealistic volunteers flooded the state on behalf of their candidate.

In a sense, we’ve been down this road before. In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was humiliated in Iowa, and immediately lost the New Hampshire lead he’d held from the start of the campaign. But he was rescued when the state G.O.P.’s establishment, which he’d spent the previous eight years courting, flexed its muscle in the closing days of the campaign.

That ’88 win was enough to restore Mr. Bush’s halo of inevitability. Mrs. Clinton may end up looking to New Hampshire for the same thing a month from now. Hillary’s Firewall