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New Hampshire Triggers Hazard Lights for Clinton Campaign

Clinton speaks during a Jan. 24 Get Out the Caucus event Marion, Iowa. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Clinton speaks during a Jan. 24 Get Out the Caucus event Marion, Iowa. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

HOOKSETT, N.H. — The long line of cars was still snaking down the dark country road on their way to the Hillary Clinton “victory party” when the networks called the New Hampshire primary for Bernie Sanders.

While it is an occupational hazard of the pundit trade to overreact to everything, the double-digit defeat here of Hillary in her second star-crossed race for the White House was more of a damaging blow than the clotted result in the Iowa caucuses.

The sub-freezing air in New Hampshire is filled with rumors of a Clinton staff shake-up. But when the former secretary of State loses to the most left-wing primary candidate in modern times, it suggests the problem rests more with the candidate than the structure of her campaign.

The sad reality for Hillary Clinton is that she was a more appealing presidential candidate the first time around. Of course, her ambitions were thwarted by an even more historic political figure named Barack Obama.

But in 2008, the breakthrough drama of becoming the first woman president was evident enough without requiring the heavy-handed efforts of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright to bludgeon feminist dissenters into submission.

More important, the two self-inflicted wounds that have undermined her candidacy would not have been possible if Hillary were still in the Senate. No one cares if a senator has a home-brew email server. And her outlandish Wall Street speaking fees would not have been permitted under congressional ethics rules.

The Republicans, judging from their over-wrought rhetoric, are obsessed with the email issue. But it is the speaking fees — and the impossible to justify greed behind them — that resonates with Democratic voters.

Bernard Sanders, by the luck of the draw, is the perfect foil for Clinton.

His economic analysis may be woolly and his ambitions quixotic, but Sanders is the rare presidential candidate who is almost entirely free of hypocrisy. There is no hidden Sanders fortune, no cabal of rich donors pulling the strings and no history (guns aside) of molding his political views to the dictates of pollsters.

“Bernie Sanders is the only guy running who has any honesty and integrity,” said Derek Gelinas, a computer engineer, after he cast his ballot for the Vermont senator at the David Cawley Middle School in Hooksett. “Even the Republicans see that. And that honesty and integrity are what give him a chance to be president.”

Here in New Hampshire — a state where Hillary Rodham first campaigned for antiwar insurgent Gene McCarthy in 1968 — there was a whiff of the “Last Hurrah” to her 2016 race. Almost all the Hillary backers I interviewed have one characteristic in common: long memories.

“I’ve always really liked Hillary,” said Frances Webber, a retired state employee after she voted in Hooksett. “She has a great sense of humor. I’ve always liked her and Bill.”

At a Clinton rally in Manchester two weeks before the primary, Anne Freed was wearing a gilt saxophone around her neck (Bill Clinton’s original instrument) that she had been given in the 1990s. “It’s my good luck charm,” she said. “I’d love to see a woman president before I leave this earth.”

The most powerful Clinton ad running before the primary depicted Hillary at a wide variety of ages with a wide variety of hairstyles always championing children’s issues. It was designed to stress the constancy of her values over four decades and to refute the impression that she is a political changeling.

But even though there can be surprising bursts of spontaneity whenever she answers questions, Clinton’s built-in awareness of political danger signs shapes her candidacy. Meeting with students at New England College last weekend, the former first lady lamented that her style as a woman candidate sometimes “comes across as a little more restrained, a little more careful.”

Sanders — not even a Democrat until this race — still seems an unlikely presidential nominee. But Democratic leaders have to be worried by the possibility that Hillary Clinton may not have what it takes to defeat Sanders in industrial state primaries. Democrats may soon be asking, “Where have you gone, Joe Biden? Our party turns its lonely eyes to you.”

In theory, it may not be too late if Biden (or another stop-Sanders candidate) decides to follow a strategy concocted by then-California Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976. In an anti-Jimmy Carter effort (in tandem with Idaho Sen. Frank Church), Brown entered the late primaries to try to force a second ballot at the Democratic Convention.

This time around, the filing deadlines for states with roughly two-thirds of the Democratic delegates have already passed. But Biden still has until early April to get on the ballot in June primary states like California and New Jersey.

In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton declared, “I still love New Hampshire and I always will.” But this was no longer a state that loved her back. And any lingering dreams that Clinton may have nurtured of getting traction on an easy road to the nomination just died in the snows of New Hampshire.

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