NEW YORK (CNN) – For six months, John McCain has been slowly clawing his way out of the rubble of a campaign that by all accounts had completely imploded. Since Iowa, Hillary Clinton had been described as a candidate on the ropes.
In a matter of hours Tuesday night, both senators proved the political pundits and pollsters wrong. The people of New Hampshire have spoken, and Sens. Clinton and McCain are riding new waves of momentum.
Clinton capitalized on her strength with women voters, low income earners, and union members to derail what many had started to view as Barack Obama’s runaway train.
In the battle for the GOP nomination, McCain captured New Hampshire’s sizable independent and moderate Republican vote, and benefited tremendously from an electorate extremely disillusioned by the Bush administration. In the increasingly blue Granite State, a full 50 percent of Republican primary voters expressed a negative view of President Bush’s performance. McCain beat his chief rival in this state, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by 15 points among this surprisingly large bloc of voters.
McCain, the Senate’s most notable GOP maverick, repeated his success from eight years earlier when he trounced then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush by appealing to both the Republican base and, more notably, independent voters. At the same time, Romney’s bid to win over voters by painting McCain as soft on illegal immigration largely failed. Simply put, not enough New Hampshire voters believe that illegal immigration is the most pressing issue facing the country.
And with the United States at war, the decorated Vietnam veteran and former P.O.W. benefited from an electorate that overwhelmingly described him as the best potential commander-in-chief. More than 4 in 10 Republican voters saw McCain as the most qualified to hold this title, compared to only 1 in 4 who felt the same way about Romney.
Meanwhile, Clinton found her voice, so she said, and regained her footing with her base of women voters. In Iowa, the New York senator lost the women’s vote to Obama by five points. By contrast, she carried the woman’s vote in New Hampshire by a sizable 13- point margin.
Clinton’s Iowa loss forced her to more fully engage in the type of retail politics that is demanded by New Hampshire’s notoriously fickle first-in-the-nation primary voters. And she successfully showed voters a rarely seen side of her by letting her guard down at a campaign event in Portsmouth. Her tears came one day before voters headed to the polls, and already observers are wondering if this display of emotion helped save her candidacy.
As Republicans and Democrats now embark on different paths in their pursuit of the White House, several candidates now find themselves with their backs to the wall. If he chooses to stay in the race, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will likely face a make-or-break caucus in neighboring Nevada. John Edwards is facing a severe cash crunch as he struggles to make his voice heard against his two better-funded opponents.
While Fred Thompson is banking on South Carolina, Romney and McCain are setting their sights on Michigan. And Mike Huckabee might have a surprisingly strong showing in that state’s hotly contested Republican primary. As in Iowa, evangelicals will be the key to any success on the part of the Arkansas governor. Rudy Giuliani is still counting on a strong showing in Florida to serve as a springboard into Super Tuesday.
Only 120 hours separated Iowa and New Hampshire. Now the sprint becomes a virtual month-long marathon with a potential February 5 finish line looming in the distance.
– CNN's Mark Preston and Alan Silverleib