In a virtual tie in the latest New Hampshire polls, Hillary Clinton tried to fight back from last week's third place Iowa caucus finish in the ABC WMUR Democratic debate last night, resulting in the most contentious gathering of Democratic candidates to date. She was leading in the New Hampshire polls through last Friday, but has been steadily giving up ground to Barack Obama ever since his stunning win in Iowa, and I expect that this trend will continue on the basis of Clinton's most recent debate performance.
A lot can happen in the remaining 3 days before the New Hampshire Primary, but I don't see anything indicative of a Clinton comeback in New Hampshire at this point. Hillary came out of the gate last night in a boxer's pose and attempted to chip away at Obama, but was set back on her heels when Edwards eventually teamed up with Obama to label themselves as the agents of change, and label Clinton as the political establishment who was now attacking those who were trying to change the way politics is done in Washington.
While watching last night's debates I kept an eye on WMUR's interactive response graphs and watched the reaction of the focus group in the WMUR studios who were watching and "scoring" the candidates performance. On the Democratic side the focus group members who self-identified as "Independent" appeared biased and decidedly anti-Hillary from the start, but it was indicative of ideological split that exists within the democratic party today.
So in the video embedded below my suggestion is to think of the blue graph line as the Democratic "centrists" who are the core of Clinton's support in New Hampshire, and consider the yellow line (labeled "Independents") as the two polar groups within the Democratic party who are solidly behind Obama at this stage -- the Democrats who self-identify as "progressives" and those who self-identify as "conservative." The video clips are courtesy of WMUR-TV in Manchester New Hampshire, co-hosts with ABC of last night's debates.
In the following (1:56) exchange Barack is responding to criticisms from Clinton that his plan for health care is non-specific and not yet fully vetted. Clinton interrupts and tries to score more points by not letting Barack brush aside her criticism. Watch the response graph diverge as Clinton digs deeper at Obama:
As Clinton continues note that eventually the blue graph drops as well, as she turns more negative in her attack against Obama -- a clear indication that not only is she failing to persuade and gain ground with the Democratic faction that is supporting Obama, she's chipping away at her own core base as well.
The following clip (2:38 - presented without the interactive graphing) is the point in the debate I referenced earlier, and key to the split. John Edwards labels Clinton's aggressive stance as indicative of the Washington political establishment, and is characterized by attacking the agents of change.
At 1:25 into the clip, as Edwards gestures towards Clinton remarking that she's turned negative against Obama only after losing ground to Obama, we see Clinton sit up straight and straighten herself as she readies her response. What follows is her key message today -- whether it overcomes the Obama momentum in New Hampshire remains to be seen, but I suspect it won't.
Looking at the larger, national picture, at this point in the campaign -- with Clinton clearly on the ropes -- Edwards hopes to gain ground on Obama by pulling votes from the Clinton camp. Since Obama is ahead he should take the 'high road' and pull back from the negative stance he adopted when Clinton was leading, and let Edwards chip away at Clinton. Obama can gain considerable ground against Clinton just by letting Edwards erode her base further.
With momentum clearly in his favor Barack Obama can take the safe road and err on the side of caution; in effect he can "win by not losing." In that I mean he can adopt the stance we saw Clinton take months ago whereby she was non-specific in her answers and sought to hold onto her frontrunner position by not making mistakes. It to Obama's advantage to take that approach over the next 3 days in New Hampshire.
I expect Clinton will continue on the attack, attempting to vet Obama on the specifics of his proposals and platform. Obama's response will determine Clinton's success in that regard, so he clearly must not lose ground to her attacks. The high road is the path to victory in New Hampshire for Barack.
On October 28th, in a post titled "Hope on the Ropes" I signaled that Obama was changing his stance and preparing to aggressively pursue Clinton, who at that point was enjoying a 30 point lead in the national polls. In the 10 weeks that followed he's achieved significant success in that regards, demonstrating an ability to rally Democrats in several key demographic segments.
A lot can change in the weeks ahead, but we're only four weeks away from the February 5 "Super Tuesday" primaries, and judging from last night's debate Clinton will need a major miracle to turn this tide.
Note: Wizbang Blue is now closed and our authors have moved on. Paul Hooson can now be found at Wizbang Pop!. Please come see him there!