Sweet column: Obamaville caught by surprise with NH loss. Team Clinton to start aggresive conversation about Obama record.

SHARE Sweet column: Obamaville caught by surprise with NH loss. Team Clinton to start aggresive conversation about Obama record.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama Tuesday lost the front-runner title he held for five days when chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stunned him by winning the New Hampshire presidential primary.

After Obama thumped Clinton in Iowa, he landed here so optimistic about his chances of becoming the 44th president of the United States that I thought the soaring, inspirational speeches I heard — covering everything from slavery to global warming — were dress rehearsals for his January 2009 inaugural address.

“I can beat all of them,” boasted Obama.

Obama decided not to worry about raising expectations because he had healthy leads in every New Hampshire poll and was drawing overflowing crowds, as Clinton seemed in a tailspin.

His aides were so certain of victory (by at least five points) that they scheduled a rally in New Jersey for today, optimistically pushing into the media market serving three delegate-rich states — New Jersey, Connecticut and Clinton’s New York — with Feb. 5 primaries.

Obama’s elite fund-raisers, meeting Friday in Des Moines, decided that his appeal was so strong that they would systematically start soliciting Republicans as soon as New Hampshire was out of the way.

But something happened.

New Hampshire did not finish Clinton off.

She pulled big numbers from the Democratic strongholds of Manchester and Nashua. Former Sen. John Edwards, who came in third, pulled anti-Clinton votes away from Obama.

Exit polls showed women, who deserted Clinton in Iowa, came back. Maybe her getting choked up, as she did on Monday in a Portsmouth cafe, helped. Women who have been there understand what happened. And plenty of them have been there.

The race moves on to South Carolina and Nevada, and Obama, who will be in Charleston on Thursday, has a running start with a galvanized African-American Democratic base energized by his Iowa win and possibly smarting over New Hampshire.

Obama nonetheless faces a tougher race ahead with a different dynamic.

In New Hampshire, Clinton started raising questions about Obama’s record as an Illinois state senator and in the U.S. Senate — something she decided to do only very late in the Iowa contest, thinking the press would do the job for her.

Realizing that if she had something to say she would have to say it herself, she did so more forcefully in New Hampshire, with an assist from Bill Clinton.

The Clinton camp is determined now to start a more aggressive conversation about Obama’s record — health care, energy, taxes, his work in the Senate.

“We know we can disagree without being disagreeable,” Obama said in his concession speech where he used the TV time to deliver a modified stump, minus the zest I saw so many times these past days.


Perhaps not.

Obama has been saying these past days that he thought he was done being vetted. I’m not sure where he got the notion that there was a place called “done” in a big presidential contest.

Nothing’s over. The score is one to one. It’s just getting started.

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