After the long lines and the big poll numbers, Barack Obama's raucous crowds gave way just a few days later to a big, but notably quiet, gathering in the huge gym at Nashua High School South on Tuesday night.
The contrast with last week's raucous crowd in Des Moines was stark. Then, Obama's Iowa supporters cheered every piece of news on the projected TV screens—especially the numbers showing that their candidate had beaten Hillary Clinton among women voters. In New Hampshire, as word spread that the exit polls were suggesting that Clinton had won big among women voters in New Hampshire, the crowd looked worried.
In Iowa Obama's senior aides spent the evening with the press, messaging good news to reporters every few minutes. In New Hampshire there were almost no senior Obama aides to be found.
When Jim Margolis, Obama's admaker, walked briskly through the press area at the campaign's election site, NEWSWEEK asked how it was going. He tilted his hand from side to side, suggesting that the results were finely balanced. When asked about his numbers by e-mail, David Axelrod, Obama's senior strategist, would say only that it was close. Behind the scenes, in the Obama campaign's boiler room at the candidate's hotel in Nashua, the early numbers suggested a five-point win for the Illinois senator.
In fact, the Obama camp had been cautious for several days—despite the big poll leads and the media speculation about a decisive win. Earlier in the day Axelrod had cautioned against believing reports of double-digit leads. "The polls are out of control," he said at Obama's last preresult rally, at Dartmouth College in Hanover. "I don't buy into the tidal wave idea."
Still, the audience at Obama's election rally was left waiting for the tidal wave to break. They cheered as Clinton's lead receded briefly around 9:30. When she soon surged forward again, the crowd groaned once more.
Supporters' spirits revived only when Barack and Michelle Obama entered the gym for his concession speech. The momentum theory of this primary season had just ground to a halt. But Obama rallied his supporters by describing his campaign as a movement. "We are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction," he said. "Change is what is happening in America."
The crowd started up a new chant: "We want change! We want change!"
These are the moments that make or break presidential campaigns: their ability to absorb the blows and bounce back. Speaking after Clinton's victory was official, Margolis insisted that Obama had always overcome obstacles in his career—and that New Hampshire was no different. "This is somebody who has understood his whole life that there are pretty significant challenges that are out there," he said. "I don't think he ever entered into this race thinking he would walk through 50 states."
Obama's speech tied his campaign's fortunes directly to the American narrative—from the founding fathers, to slaves escaping bondage, to new immigrants arriving in America. "There has never been anything false about hope," he said. "For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told that we're not ready, or that that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have answered with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can."
Obama's new challenge is to build what he called his "new American majority" across the nation for the Feb. 5 primaries. His impassioned campaign now moves to Nevada and South Carolina knowing that it is tied with Clinton's in the national polls. Of course, a lot can change in three weeks. Or, as New Hampshire showed, in just a few days.