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Tiny state again sends big message to the mighty

Published Sep. 26, 2005

On second thought, New Hampshire had second thoughts.

This is the morning after: the morning after a classic New Hampshire primary, the morning after insurrectionary voters gave new life to insurgent candidates _ and suddenly the political world looks new again.

The front-runners might not be. The inevitable isn't.

At least for now.

Once again the fabled contrarians of this state _ the old men of the mountains and the new entrepreneurs of the high-tech southern suburbs _ delivered a blow to deference in both parties. They rattled the party leaders' choices, defeating Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and granting only a modest victory to Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee, even as they renewed the candidacies of two party rebels, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

While Bradley, loser in a close race, survives to fight again, McCain leaves the Granite State with a remarkable victory, one that _ by virtue of the message, the margin and the man _ ranks as one of the most striking political achievements in the storied history of the New Hampshire primary. But for both insurgents, the fight, until Tuesday conducted so efficiently in the compact precincts squeezed between the Atlantic seacoast and the Quebec border, now moves to terrain that favors the familiar and undermines the position of the underdog.

Meanwhile, two debates, begun in scores of town meetings and community gatherings all over this state, are now poised to go national. The first is a debate over whether the Democratic Party, once the solace of the poor and the striving, should take up the causes of its wealthy campaign contributors and present itself as more the agent of the center than of reform. The second is a debate about just how much the Republican Party, long the party that resisted rebellion in American public life, should assail the very establishment that nurtured, supported and financed it.

Along the way, the newly reconfigured presidential election almost certainly will give American voters new choices not only about the direction of the country and the parties, but also about the nature of the liberal and conservative movements.

After a frenzied campaign in a state that for an extraordinary seven-day period was transformed into a snowy political village, the most formidable figure in presidential politics was upended like a top-heavy ice sculpture. And in delivering a decisive victory to McCain, Republican and independent voters also delivered a formidable rebuke to Bush, until Tuesday _ and until New Hampshire _ widely regarded as the inevitable GOP nominee and the best bet to win the first presidential election of the new century.

At the same time, Gore's determined march to the Democratic nomination was disrupted by the strong showing by Bradley, who has raised uncomfortable questions about the Clinton-Gore administration's coziness with big contributors and about the political system's dependence on, and deference to, big money.

Just as they did to former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 and Sen. Bob Dole in 1996, the voters of New Hampshire put a dent in the armor of the front-runners. Even so, Bush and Gore _ with endorsements, national organizations and the support of the party infrastructure _ still hold the strongest cards in the presidential poker game.

But the performance of the two candidates in New Hampshire revealed important weaknesses for both of them.

In his campaigning in the weeks leading to Tuesday's primary, Bush showed a tentativeness that was disquieting even to his closest advisers and a lack of mastery that was unsettling even to his supporters. He failed to reassure voters that he possessed the reach and vision of his principal rival, and he was unable to counter the powerful message delivered by McCain, who vowed to break "the Washington iron triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation."

Populist messages like McCain's have often played well in this state, even in GOP primaries. But unlike Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator who upset Dole in 1996, McCain is an established political figure, a proven vote-getter and conventional conservative. For those reasons, his triumph over Bush was far more significant than Buchanan's victory four years ago. It was a message to America, to be sure, but mostly a message to Bush.

Similarly, the spirited but losing performance by Bradley, who lacks the institutional muscle of Gore, revealed weaknesses in Gore's campaign and in the vice president's political persona. In his battle back against Bradley, who held the lead here for months, Gore showed grit. In his attacks on Bradley, Gore showed desperation. Indeed, he undermined his own position more than Bradley's, making him vulnerable to charges that he skimmed the truth in a frantic battle for advantage.

Gore wasn't alone, however; in the final days, Bradley walked the same path, attacking Gore and opening to doubt his claim to be a different sort of Democrat.

And so stubborn old New Hampshire has delivered its verdict, startling the strong, sustaining the weak. The appeal process begins this morning.