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Globe Editorial

Experience counts

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January 9, 2008

IN THE END, experience was crucial. On an unusually warm Tuesday in January, New Hampshire voters went to the polls in record numbers. Yesterday's primary revived Republican John McCain's presidential bid, which once seemed all but lost. But while the upwelling in turnout was expected to help Barack Obama, who won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa last week, Jan. 8 turned out to be Hillary Clinton's day.

The high turnout testifies to the diligence of New Hampshire voters, who take seriously their role as focus group for the American electorate. The results suggest that, at the least, New Hampshire voters put more stock in the length of a candidate's track record than Iowa voters did, and that years of campaigning in the state paid off, both for Clinton and McCain.

McCain, who won the GOP contest in New Hampshire eight years ago, prevailed yesterday, by finishing well ahead of Mitt Romney, the well-financed former governor of a neighboring state, and ahead of Mike Huckabee, winner of the Iowa caucuses. Unlike Romney and fourth-place finisher Rudy Giuliani, McCain campaigned without significantly modifying past positions. As he described it in his victory speech, he had a simple strategy: "I'm going to New Hampshire," he said, "and I'm going to tell people the truth."

Despite her loss in Iowa, and despite polls suggesting that Obama was poised for a second easy victory in New Hampshire, Clinton's superior political organization pulled out a close race. Well-informed about policy but widely perceived as impersonal, Clinton herself may have learned something in recent days from voters' embrace of Obama in the wake of his victory in Iowa. Finding herself on the defensive may well have humanized Clinton. She fought hard in Saturday's debate, rather than presenting herself as the inevitable nominee. Her campaign got a much-needed reminder that voters seek to understand the instincts and the judgment that a candidate would bring to the office, and not just the candidate's issue positions. Her victory speech reflected that. "I listened to you," she said, "and in the process, I found my own voice."

Obama too can draw a lesson from Clinton's performance in New Hampshire. While his Iowa victory turned him into a political rock star, celebrity alone won't win him the nomination. He will need to flesh out his lofty rhetoric with better-developed policy proposals.

Yesterday's contest clearly won't be enough to resolve either party's nomination battle. The Republican field remains too unsettled. On the Democratic side, the contest between Clinton and Obama is too tight, as New Hampshire showed. And that is for the better. Voters across the country need time. This election year, after all, is barely more than a week old.

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