THE NOTE: 'Real Elections'


The opening rounds behind them in a five-day flash, the presidential contenders leave New Hampshire with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John McCain firmly back in contention -- and with the candidates weary from a wild ride that leaves the field back where it started more than a year ago.

In trading two upstarts for two stalwarts, Granite Staters sent a much different message than their Hawkeye State brethren. They also stripped from the race any notion of anointed frontrunners, leaving the contest to a crush of other states -- through Feb. 5 and very possibly well beyond -- to sort out.

The campaign now loses its tight focus, replaced by a dizzying series of state-by-state contests that will pit different combinations of the remaining candidates. With the two states that have consumed maybe 90 percent of the candidates' attention and energy now done, any campaign that claims to be fully prepared for what's to come isn't spinning -- it's lying.


What's clear is that the primary campaign is going to last for a while: Two Democratic contests plus three Republican contests (don't forget Wyoming) have yielded five different winners. The frontloaded calendar may yet yield an early set of nominees, but like so much else in this campaign that's seen everything, don't count on it.

Clinton's stunning victory (her campaign let out word of shake-ups even before polls closed on Tuesday, seeking to change a storyline aides were certain would be negative) robs Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., of what was certainly his best chance to lock down the nomination swiftly and cleanly.

"Over the last week, I have listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice," Clinton, D-N.Y., said in declaring victory, this time alone at the podium and with young faces behind her. And this was the money line, looking back but also forward: "Together let's give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me," she said, as supporters chanted "Comeback Kid!"

Clinton said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that her now-famous emotional display on Monday "could well have been" what made the difference for her, particularly among the female voters who returned to her camp on Tuesday

"Certainly people have mentioned it to me," Clinton told Robin Roberts. But mostly, she said, it was the change in tone (toward the sharper) that started with ABC's debates on Saturday: "I really felt like, from the debate on Saturday night forward, we were finally having a real election," Clinton said (and you can guess there's more real distinctions to be drawn). "It was a really representative election, and it felt very good."

The angst and uncertainty that resided in Camp Clinton moved over to Obamaland in the space of a few hours. "This is going to be a close contest. We've got a lot of work to do," Obama told Robin Roberts on "GMA." "Any of us who sit back and think that we know how voters are going to respond at this point are probably misleading themselves."

And Obama is none too happy with a certain former president: "President Clinton is passionate about his wife and wants to see her win. And, during the course of this week, said some things that distorted my record."

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