What N.H. Does for Hillary

This time, the Clintons didn’t have to be cute about claiming a moral victory. Sixteen years after Bill Clinton bailed

This time, the Clintons didn’t have to be cute about claiming a moral victory. Sixteen years after Bill Clinton bailed out his candidacy by spinning a second-place New Hampshire finish into a win, Hillary Clinton scored an unambiguous, undisputed, and mostly unexpected victory in the lead-off primary tonight.

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Instantly, her path to the nomination has cleared up. No candidate has ever won the nomination after losing–in votes and media perception–Iowa and New Hampshire, a fate that Hillary seemed destined for as late as seven o’clock this evening. But by winning, she instead joins the ranks of past heavyweights from both parties–like Walter Mondale and George H.W. Bush–who entered the primary season as the clear favorite, suffered a stunning setback, and then righted their ship just as the media vultures were circling overhead.

Now Hillary stands a reasonable chance of winning two of the three remaining contests in January, the prelude to the February 5 mega-primary: Nevada, where her win may prevent the defection of critical union support to Obama that had been expected before Hillary’s win tonight; and Florida, which will vote on February 29 (although it’s unclear how much attention the media will pay to that race). She is now the underdog in South Carolina, where African American voters began flocking to Obama after his Iowa win, but there is also a chance that her New Hampshire momentum could put her back in the mix there.

The reversal of fortune for Hillary is astounding. She woke up on Tuesday facing the very real prospect of being shut out in every contest before February 5. Now she may win the majority of votes cast in January and could enter February 5 as the clear front-runner.

There is no telling how cataclysmic a loss tonight would have been for Hillary. Donations would have dried up, with a corresponding infusion of establishment cash being funneled to Obama’s coffers. A campaign shake-up loomed, with Hillary potentially sacrificing her top strategist, Mark Penn, in part to appease a press corps that would have demanded tangible proof of a changed strategy. Wavering big-name Democrats would have begun publicly endorsing Obama. And Hillary’s lead in national polls and in the big February 5 states, fueled largely by name recognition and the perception of inevitability, would have melted away.

Obama, meanwhile, leaves New Hampshire reeling. A sizable win–something the media and his campaign fully expected until late in the afternoon–would have nearly extinguished Hillary. Instead, she now has the momentum. She may now have reclaimed her status as the Nevada front-runner (the next contest). Obama can survive a loss there, but will have to win South Carolina, at the very least. Even at that, however, his best case scenario is now to enter February 5 on an equal footing with Hillary. But that plays to her, given the advantages she has in the big states that vote that day (like New York, California and New Jersey). He needed to have her on the ropes entering February 5, but that is now impossible.

What’s more troubling for Obama is the matter of how he lost New Hampshire. Clinton’s machine, which was steered by a team of veteran New Hampshire operatives and aided by the support of much of the party establishment, was a major factor, as was the embrace women voters gave to Hillary. But where Obama really may have lost the race was in last Saturday’s debate, which was watched more intensely and by a larger audience than any previous debate. In it, Hillary pressed her talk vs. results theme very effectively, flashing her detailed and wonkish policy knowledge, while Obama talked in mostly lifeless platitudes.

Barack Obama is back to being the underdog. And New Hampshire has just sent him a troubling warning: Powerful speeches alone won’t defeat the Clinton Machine.

What N.H. Does for Hillary