As a number of the presidential contenders are fond of saying, there are 48 more contests left after Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire.
But in the long slog to the Democratic and Republican nominations for president, the surprise wins by Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee over their more well-financed opponents on Thursday has turned what was a marathon into a dead sprint that could make the outcome of Tuesday's contest more crucial than ever.
The New Hampshire primary is traditionally important because it has taken place well before other primaries and allows independents to cast ballots for either Democrats or Republicans, unlike most other "closed primaries," where only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote on their respective parties' ballots. But with so many other states jockeying for position this year and pushing their primaries up to get more screen time, is New Hampshire still a major player?
"Because so many other states moved their primaries up, the effect of the New Hampshire primary will not likely be as long-lasting," said Paul Barresi, chair of the political science department at Southern New Hampshire University. "But it's still the first, and so as a result of that, the 'winners' tend to quickly attract more money and media coverage and the 'losers' tend to find it hard to raise money and attract the media." Barresi said he uses quotes because historically in New Hampshire the candidates are often not competing with their supposed opponents so much as expectations.
Looking at it that way, the ones who defy expectations (think Huckabee in Iowa) are often pronounced the winners and get the money and attention, while those who fail to live up to expectations miss out on both.
Another crucial factor in New Hampshire is the fact that independent voters make up almost 44 percent of the approximately 850,000 registered voters in the state, so their ballots on Tuesday could prove pivotal for a number of the campaigns, especially the suddenly vulnerable campaign of former first lady Senator Hillary Clinton, who teared up while speaking at a campaign event in Portsmouth on Monday (January 7).
"Some of us are ready and some of us are not," Clinton said at the event, referring to junior Senator Obama. According to The Associated Press, she appeared to struggle with her emotions when she made that statement.
As it did in Iowa, what was once a formidable lead over Obama has vanished in New Hampshire, with a majority of polls showing Clinton between eight and 10 points behind her rival — a recent Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll had Obama at 36 percent and Clinton at 28 percent, with former Senator John Edwards polling a few points behind at around 22 percent. Most polls also show Obama with a double-digit lead over Clinton in the race for the independent vote.
Is New Hampshire suddenly make-or-break for Clinton? "It's probably more important than it was even five days ago," Barresi said. "Though [the Clinton campaign is] now trying to play down the expectations game and say they're running a 50-state race. But Obama's performance in Iowa places Hillary in a vulnerable position, but it's also true that the elevated expectations for Senator Obama in New Hampshire make him more vulnerable." With expectations so high and some 50 percent of New Hampshire voters saying they were undecided just a day before going to the polls, if Obama ties Clinton, wins by 3 percent or is beat by Clinton, Barresi said the groundswell of support he gained off the Iowa victory could rapidly dissipate.
Unlike Iowa, where evangelical voters helped Baptist minister Huckabee score his decisive win, New Hampshire voters have lined up behind Senator John McCain, who leads former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney 35 percent to 31 percent, with Huckabee well behind at 13 percent, in the Marist poll.
Barresi said the contest could also make or break McCain, who struggled for much of 2007 with funding and staff defections but has spent a huge amount of time in New Hampshire, where he scored a decisive victory over President George W. Bush in the 2000 primary. "If he does well and wins, he will get the momentum that could carry his candidacy forward," Barresi said. "If he doesn't do well in New Hampshire, it's pretty much over for him."
At press time, Obama and McCain led their rivals in at least eight different polls, with many predicting that independent and undecided voters could swing the results wildly either way before the final tallies are in Tuesday night.
"I'm not really sure who I'm going to vote for, so I'm just trying to listen to everyone," Patrick Dillon, an 18-year-old New Hampshire native, said Monday before a McCain rally at the state Capitol. "My mom is very liberal, my dad is conservative, and I could really go either way. I'm not going to make up my mind until I'm on my way to vote tomorrow."
Though sites like the Drudge Report have already started speculating whether Clinton might be close to throwing in the towel after her unexpected collapse in Iowa, the senator vowed to keep fighting no matter what happens in New Hampshire, telling CBS' "Early Show" on Monday, "Whatever happens tomorrow, we're going on. ... And we're going to keep going until the end of the process on February 5th. But I've always felt that this is going to be a very tough, hard-fought election, and I'm ready for that." February 5 is being billed as "super duper Tuesday" because more than 20 states will hold their primaries on that day, with many pundits predicting both parties will have chosen their nominees following that hectic day of results.
Like the record turnout in Iowa, ABC World News reported that the secretary of state in New Hampshire has predicted a record number of voters on Tuesday in the vicinity of 500,000 people, including 150,000 independents.
The moment the Iowa vote ended, the major candidates all jetted to New Hampshire, with Romney and Clinton turning up the heat on their rivals. Romney attacked Huckabee's history of tax increases and accused McCain of being part of the problem during his 20-plus years in Washington rather than an advocate for change. According to The Washington Post, "Despite being outwardly optimistic, Romney advisers are well aware that a loss ... would unravel their carefully plotted route to the nomination."
Clinton went on the offensive by repeatedly suggesting that Obama talks a good game but isn't action-oriented and will not be equipped to lead the country on day one. Among Clinton's new tactics over the weekend was opening the floor to questions from the audience in place of her prepared stump speeches.
Whether or not you believe the hype about how important New Hampshire is, Barresi said a few facts are indisputable. "New Hampshire is a small state, relatively rural and not demographically representative of the country as a whole in terms of race and ethnicity," he said. "On the other hand, people who live in New Hampshire are more civically engaged than most Americans ... and are more politically aware, so the candidates who campaign here are vetted in a way they're not vetted in other states by voters who take their role in the process very seriously. They participate in it for two years beforehand and it escalates over time as the voters become very engaged in the process and have intense conversations with the candidates in living rooms [and] grocery stores."
Keep checking in MTV News for more coverage of the New Hampshire primary throughout the week, and don't miss our exclusive interviews with Senator Hillary Clinton — before and after her Tuesday victory — and John McCain's daughter Meghan.