Well, it appears we have a competitive Democratic presidential primary campaign after all. (The Republican race is wide open, too, but we knew that before New Hampshire).
Voters have a presumptuous habit of overturning the scenarios of inevitability produced by the multitude of pollsters, pundits and prognosticators. Going into New Hampshire's Tuesday primary, we all knew that Sen. Barack Obama would beat Sen. Hillary Clinton by double-digit margins, after which he would march through Nevada, South Carolina, Florida and Super Tuesday on his way to the coronation.
But voters were working from a different script: Clinton 39 percent; Obama 37 percent.
Former Sen. John Edwards was a distant third with 17 percent, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson trailed with 5 percent.
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Perhaps this race was destined to remain competitive, no cakewalk for either Obama or Clinton. The results in New Hampshire ensure that both will be working hard between now and at least Feb. 5, date of the Super Tuesday primaries involving 22 states, including big prizes such as New York and California.
Tuesday's results on the Republican side left that race just as unsettled, if not more so. It was, however, the resurrection of Sen. John McCain, who had been considered dead in the water only a few weeks ago.
McCain, who won New Hampshire in 2002, finished first again Tuesday with 37 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished second with 31 percent, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee third with 11 percent.
The results anoint no clear front-runner. Huckabee, who had won the Iowa caucuses on Thursday, got no bounce in New Hampshire. McCain, though triumphant, has a diminished campaign organization and little money for the battles ahead. Romney, once considered a major contender, has won only the Wyoming caucus, while coming in second in both Iowa and New Hampshire despite investing heavily on campaign ads.
The disarray and uncertainty ensure that the nation's eyes soon will turn to South Carolina, which holds its GOP primary on Jan. 19 and its Democratic primary a week later. The battle here might not be decisive for the major contenders, but it might well winnow the field.
In the Republican race, former Sen. Fred Thompson, who finished with only 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, is staking everything on South Carolina. On the Democratic side, Edwards will have to win here to remain a viable candidate.
Others are taking a different approach. Romney announced Wednesday that he has pulled all his advertising in South Carolina to concentrate on the Jan. 15 Republican primary in Michigan, which he needs to win. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who announced early that he would bank his hopes on Florida and Super Tuesday, will bypass South Carolina as he has all the other early caucuses and primaries.
But South Carolina remains a significant showdown state for Republicans McCain and Huckabee, and Democrats Obama and Clinton. It promises to be a whirlwind two weeks for the state.
Some voters are downtrodden, some elated by the results of the campaign so far. But no one should complain that this uniquely American exercise in close-up democracy has been boring or predictable.
And we, the voters of South Carolina soon will play a key role in this drama. Unless you are totally uninvolved in the political process, that is exciting.
New Hampshire primary results erased any notion that race would end soon.
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