MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The two candidates with the most riding on having New Hampshire stop the momentum train have a similar problem: They have no friends.
The debate stage at Saint Anselm College Saturday night in Manchester hosted back-to-back pile-ons, with ABC's Charlie Gibson playing referee. And it's the great misfortune of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., that their opponents chose them as the people they'd most like to see knocked out.
That's what left Romney stammering, combative, and besieged, not to mention inexplicably professing his love for "mandates" in the state where the license plates read "Live Free or Die." (Remember the ancient days when it seemed like Romney could never lose a debate? Neither does he.)
It's also what boxed Clinton into the crouch of indignant anger that defined her performance at Saturday night's all-important debate on ABC, her voice displaying a level of shock that she is no longer the odds-on presidential frontrunner. (Remember when she could rise above the field back when nobody could touch her in the polls? So does she -- and does she ever want those days back now.)
The turning point of the Democratic debate came when Clinton started unpacking her thick dossier of oppo research. She sought to paint Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as inconsistent and hypocritical, and chose Obama's criticism of former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., as a starting point.
A savvy play -- Edwards could have been expected to jump on Obama, who with a win in New Hampshire on Tuesday could take a giant step toward sealing the nomination. But that wasn't in the Edwards game plan, not this night, not at this stage of the campaign: "Any time you speak out powerfully for change, the forces of status quo attack," he said.
Suddenly Clinton was alone, angry, and lecturing. The words themselves don't do the moment justice, but here they are: "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change. I'm not just running on a promise of change. I'm running on 35 years of change."
ABC's Jake Tapper sees it as The Moment. "Frankly, I don't even really understand what she was saying. What I was getting was how angry she is. Not about an issue, so much, as about the fact that Obama is beating her," Tapper writes. "The clip, I predict, will be played again and again and again." (Naturally, it was YouTubed before the debate was over.)
The Obama-Edwards tag team wasn't a planned double-barreled attack -- because it didn't need to be. It was an "alliance of convenience," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "She fought back as she did when she was first lady of Arkansas and of the United States -- with defiance and flashes of anger, pursing her lips, stiffening her back and staring intently at her rivals," they write.
"When it became clear that Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards, sitting side by side across from her, were teaming up, Mrs. Clinton sat up and pulled her coat tight as if preparing for battle."
Keep that coat on -- it's not getting any friendlier out there. On stage, Clinton missed Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. -- allies in the change vs. experience fight. They would have at least scattered the fire, and could have soaked the flames headed toward Clinton with so many white hairs.
Clinton was left with Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., as her only possible ally -- and Richardson's the kid who wants to collect everybody's signature in his yearbook (even if a certain deal in Iowa makes him unpopular in the Clinton camp these days).
"Staggered by her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, the New York senator was the aggressor throughout a 90-minute session that showed the reconstituted candidate lineup in stark relief," Mark Z. Barabak and Scott Martelle write in the Los Angeles Times. Obama "spent most of the debate in the position Clinton once occupied -- coolly above the fray."
It's good to be the frontrunner, isn't it, senator? Obama "chose to step back, parrying Clinton's attacks," ABC's Marcus Baram writes. "What is important is that we don't . . . try to distort each other's records," Obama said.
Clinton certainly put enough meat on the table for reporters to pick over in the final days before New Hampshire. It was a "role reversal, with Clinton playing the scrappy underdog," Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post. "We should get into examining everybody's record," Clinton said.
But as oppo-research poured into reporters' inboxes throughout the debate, most of it probably went unread. For starters, almost all of it has been out there before -- on or off the record. And the New Hampshire primaries are 48 hours away -- the time for examining Obama's voting record in the legislature has largely passed. What's more, the storyline of the moment is too compelling (overwhelming?) not to tell.
"Obama is riding a very big wave, spreading consternation and bewilderment through the ranks of Clinton supporters here struggling to make sense of what is unfolding before them," The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis writes, nailing the unfolding dynamic.
Firewall? There is no firewall. "Across the state, Obama is drawing crowds that are double and triple the size of Clinton's," MacGillis writes. "The contrast in the tone and substance of the candidates' events is even starker. Obama has infused his stump speech with a new air of assurance, telling his huge crowds that the movement of national reconciliation he has been calling for -- 'turning the page' for a 'working majority' -- is now underway, with Iowa as evidence."
Obama grabs the cover of Newsweek -- and a long cover story that reads like it won't be his last. "Obama's high-minded themes of hope and change -- and not getting your hands dirty -- can come off as earnest, even naive, in the world of hardball presidential politics," Richard Wolffe writes. "But Obama is also a streetwise Chicago pol who put together a campaign machine formidable enough to take on the Clintons and win."
That storylines get a boost on Monday, with Obama set to be endorsed by former senator Bill Bradley, D-N.J., ABC's Karen Travers reports.
Time's Karen Tumulty writes up the flipside: "The scope of Barack Obama's victory in Iowa has shaken the Clinton machine down to its bolts. Donors are panicking. The campaign has been making a round of calls to reassure notoriously fickle 'superdelegates' -- elected officials and party regulars who are awarded convention spots by virtue of their titles and positions -- who might be reconsidering their decisions to back the candidate who formerly looked like a sure winner."
"And internally, a round of recriminations is being aimed at her chief strategist, Mark Penn, as the representative of everything about her pseudo-incumbent campaign that has been too cautious, too arrogant, too conventional and too clueless as to how much the political landscape has shifted since the last Clinton reign," Tumulty writes. "One adviser summed up the biggest challenge that faces the campaign in two words: 'Fresh thinking.' "
Translation: No easy answers. If Clinton falls in New Hampshire, start the Mark Penn countdown.
Clinton supporters got a piece of encouraging news (for this environment) with the new WMUR/CNN poll, which showed Clinton and Obama tied at 33. That means Clinton's support hasn't cratered in New Hampshire.
Mr. Penn -- always scrupulously honest in these memos, right? -- weighs in with another missive. Title: "Where's is the Bounce?"
But you tell us who's got bounce in their steps. "Obama offered the sweeping orations that helped propel him to a first-place finish in Iowa this week," Meg Heckman writes in the Concord Monitor. "Clinton, meanwhile, swapped her usual stump speech for lengthy question-and-answer sessions with voters."
David Broder's take in The Washington Post: "Hillary Clinton has one more chance to stop Obama's momentum here. New Hampshire has been good to the Clintons in the past. They need the state to come to their rescue one more time," Broder writes. "She cannot count on help from anyone else. . . . Any way you view it, the race is now Obama's to lose."
In the Republican debate -- Romney thought he felt sick before he stepped onto the stage? The "stakes for Romney may have been the highest," and he surely received the most incoming fire, Rick Pearson and Jill Zuckman report in the Chicago Tribune. "Virtually all of Romney's rivals went after him on an array of issues Saturday night, questioning him on everything from health care to national security and displaying a hostility that at times seemed personal."
McCain is the frontrunner as Tuesday's primary approaches, up seven points in the new WMUR/CNN poll.
But the others candidates chose to defend McCain, while attacking Romney with particular relish. Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson practically tripped over each other in to squeeze in more one-liners labeling Romney a flip-flopper. And somehow, Romney allowed himself to get outflanked by Thompson on healthcare.
Romney's rivals were "sensing a weakness in the campaign of Mitt Romney," and were only too eager to exploit it, per Susan Milligan of The Boston Globe. "A stunned-looking Romney appeared to lose his characteristic composure then set his jaw firmly." One (of many) McCain lines: "Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but you are the candidate of change."
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., was a virtual non-factor in the debate (and his campaign an utter no-show in the spin-room) -- save for when he engaged Romney. "Don't try and characterize my position," Romney admonished Huckabee. Said Huckabee: "Which one?"
Romney wanted to be the center of attention -- but not like this. "Romney's opponents certainly did not ignore him. Not for a second. They mauled him, or at least tried," ABC's John Berman reports.
Romney was locked in a "five-front war," The New York Times' Michael Cooper and Marc Santora write, "a fiery debate here that was marked with repeated attacks that sometimes dripped with scorn." "The stakes in the debate were highest for Mr. Romney and for Mr. McCain, who both badly want a victory on Tuesday, and they ended up having some of the most spirited exchanges of the night."
Romney's rivals have long despised him -- whether it's out of jealousy over his wallet or his hairline, or because of the attacks he's leveled at virtually all his rivals -- it doesn't matter anymore.
"The contempt was obvious, and relentless. And it was harnessed for clear strategic purposes at the debate," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "Everyone -- even candidates who don't seem to be in the center of the New Hampshire action -- felt it was in their interest to pile on the former Massachusetts governor."
That hardly bodes well for Romney coming into Sunday's biggest event, the Fox News forum, which is going forward at 8 pm ET despite losing its partnership with the state Republican Party.
They'll always have Wyoming: Romney won eight of the state's 12 convention delegates, with Thompson, R-Tenn., nabbing three, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., winning one. (Yes, Duncan Hunter.)
And as the Romney campaign prepares to spin a second-place finish as another "silver" in a long Olympics, it's worth knowing that the governor from next door is spending more money on TV ads in New Hampshire than all of his GOP rivals combined, just like he did in Iowa, per ABC News.
That's the theme of the daily blast from Joseph W. McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader and one-man mission leader in Granite State efforts to defeat Romney. "Big Media and party fat cats are discovering in Mitt Romney what their predecessors found with Nelson Rockefeller, John Connally, and others: Money may get you a seat at the table, but it still doesn't buy New Hampshire," he writes.
The broad takeaway from the debates? "The two candidates with the most riding on New Hampshire lost the most ground when the stakes were highest Saturday night," per our ABC analysis. "Both Romney and Clinton know that a loss in New Hampshire would be devastating. They had an evening to change the dynamics in the tightest of windows between the first two contests. But the evening passed with their opponents' momentum intact."
It's the full presidential press on the Sunday shows. ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" has Romney, Huckabee, and Edwards on the program from New Hampshire.
Romney and Huckabee also do "Fox News Sunday." CBS's "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press" both have McCain. And CNN's "Late Edition" has on Huckabee, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.
And Obama sits down with ABC's Diane Sawyer on Sunday for an exclusive interview that will air on "Good Morning America" on Monday.
Also in the news:
Edwards turned in a strong debate, perhaps the best pure performance. "Still showing more personal, populist passion than everyone on the stage combined -- which certainly inspires and solidifies a hearty constituency, but perhaps not one large enough to put him over the top, as evidenced in Iowa," Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News writes in handing out his debate grades.
With Clinton attacking Edwards Saturday night over claiming credit for the never-passed patients' bill of rights, Edwards on Sunday has an event at noon in Manchester with the family of Nataline Sarkisyan, the 17-year-old girl who died after a bureaucratic morass over a liver transplant, and whose name was invoked in the debate. Per the campaign, Edwards will deliver "new remarks framing the race," and will kick off another 36-hour tour. (Sorry, bus denizens.)
Richardson was funny and engaging as always Saturday night (even if we could have guessed on Friday night what he was going to say). Halperin's take: "clearly not considered a serious player by the Big Three, who seemed pleasantly disposed to him, and never bothered to engage. Essentially in his own bubble at the table."
Think some AFSCME folks are starting to worry about an Obama victory? "We are writing to protest in the strongest terms the negative campaign that AFSCME is conducting against Barack Obama," reads the letter sent to union president Gerald McEntee by several members of the executive board. "We do not believe that such a wholesale assault on one of the great friends of our union was ever contemplated when the International Executive Board (IEB) made its decision to endorse Hillary Clinton."
Bill O'Reilly: Rope line warrior. O'Reilly was trying to get access to Obama at a campaign event when he "got in a tete-a-tete with Obama's National Trip Director, Marvin Nicholson," per ABC's Sunlen Miller. Nicholson (you may remember his 6-foot-8 frame from the Kerry campaign) was blocking O'Reilly camera shot, "so O'Reilly took things into his own hands . . . literally. He maneuvered around the steel gate barricade, yelled expletives at Nicholson, and called him 'low class.' "
The Democratic debate may have come close to not happening. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, filed for a temporary restraining order just hours before the debate. From our debate blog: "David Westin, the president of ABC News and a lawyer, personally worked the phones and got the judge to dismiss it. Elapsed time: about 15 minutes. Years off our collective lives: Maybe 15, as well."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., comes home -- and seems relieved to be out of the mix. "Dodd said he would not be making any announcements or delivering any endorsements of other presidential candidates," the Hartford Courant's Christopher Keating reports. "He told reporters later that he might avoid endorsing anyone before the Connecticut primary Feb. 5."
While you were getting carded in the hospitality suite, or getting cut off by overwhelmed bartenders over at J.D.'s Tavern, The New York Times' Mark Leibovitch caught up with some of the principles after that historic moment featuring all 10 candidates -- the six Republicans, plus the four Democrats -- in between the debates. Ron Paul's a Bill Richardson fan, and maybe vice versa: "I like what he's been saying on foreign policy and he was very complimentary," Paul said.
"I've been in hostage negotiations that were a lot more civil than that." -- Bill Richardson.
"In the next 10 years, we'll see more progress, more change than the world has seen in the last 10 centuries." -- Mitt Romney, in a campaign ad that started airing New Year's Day.
"We can't become energy independent in 10 years." -- Romney, four days later, at Saturday night's debate.
I'll be live-blogging during Sunday night's Fox News Republican debate, starting at 8 pm ET. Be part of the conversation here.
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