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Joan Vennochi

The chicken soup candidate

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / January 10, 2008

THE MEDIA fell in love with Barack Obama. The women of New Hampshire didn't.

Granite State women came through for Hillary Clinton in a big way. But, maybe it wasn't a sympathy vote, as some analysts suggest. Maybe it was a vote for substance over sizzle; for rational thinking over puppy love.

After Clinton's eyes welled up during a Monday campaign event, women supposedly felt sorry for her and rushed to the polls to cheer her up.

Maybe these female voters saw something more than tears.

During the days between her third-place finish in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, Clinton showed strength in adversity. While Obama was spouting poetry, Clinton stuck to what she knew best: unexciting but smart prose. Instead of giving voters goose bumps, she gave them chicken soup. In New Hampshire, it turned out to be what voters, especially women, wanted more than excitement.

At rallies like one at Pinkerton Academy in Derry on Sunday, it was "connection established," from the moment Obama arrived, two hours behind schedule. He dazzled a packed field house with a beautifully delivered speech, bursting with inspirational riffs. At the end, hands reached out to touch him, as if he were Bobby Kennedy. Obama's rhetoric, too, has a 1960s feel that many aging flower children could groove to. Ironically, that is the very constituency that Obama argues should pass on the baton - to him.

Clinton's question and answer sessions were dull by comparison. She was especially subdued at an afternoon event in Dover on Monday that took place after the morning's emotional interlude in Portsmouth. Some journalists walked out early (including me), and so did some voters, as Clinton patiently fielded a wide variety of questions, on topics ranging from the role of nonprofits to American policy in Bolivia.

But her patience at events like that was rewarded on primary day, especially by female voters. Women in New Hampshire made up 57 percent of the Democratic electorate and favored her by a nine-point margin.

Specific and unique events occurring in a compressed period of time also worked to her benefit on primary day.

For example, during the debate Saturday night, Clinton was asked to explain why voters found her less likable than some rivals like Obama. "Well, that hurts my feelings, but I'll try to go on," she said coyly. "He's very likeable, I agree with that. But I don't think I'm that bad."

"You're likeable enough," Obama responded, in a tone that came across as less charitable than it should have been.

If anyone should be crying now, it's John Edwards. He had two mean New Hampshire moments that didn't win him any votes and might have helped Clinton.

The first came during the debate Saturday, when Clinton tried to enlist Edwards as an ally, by suggesting that Obama was portraying Edwards as inconsistent.

Dramatically siding with Obama, Edwards said, "He believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change. And any time you're fighting for that, I mean, I didn't hear these kind of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead."

In response, Clinton finally flashed some long-suppressed passion. "Making change is not about what you believe. It's not about a speech you make. It is about working hard," she said.

Edwards's sharp response to Clinton's damp eyes during the campaign event Monday was also less than chivalrous: "I think that what we need in a commander in chief is strength and resolve and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business," he said.

After her improbable primary victory, Clinton said she found her voice in New Hampshire. Voters elsewhere will be listening for it. Going up against Obama's powerful and persuasive voice will be a tough challenge. Besides, Obama now has the chance to win votes the same way she did, by showing strength in adversity.

In Iowa, Clinton trailed Obama among women. After New Hampshire, there's no guarantee she locked up women everywhere else. New Hampshire proves one thing: It's a lot easier to win the hearts and minds of the media than it is to win the woman's vote.

Mitt Romney clarification: There may have been a lot of John McCain signs in Wolfeboro, N.H., as I mentioned in yesterday's column, but Mitt Romney beat McCain in the resort community where the former Massachusetts governor owns a lakefront home.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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