Focus shifts to New Hampshire for US presidential hopefuls

The campaign for the two major US parties’ presidential nominees shifted to New Hampshire today after Iowa’s result threw the races wide open.

The campaign for the two major US parties’ presidential nominees shifted to New Hampshire today after Iowa’s result threw the races wide open.

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney were setting out to recover from defeats in Iowa, a state in which they were heavily tipped to win.

Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, punctured Mrs Clinton’s front-runner status with a convincing win as he sought to become America’s first black president.

He won the Democratic caucuses by a clear margin, taking 38% of the vote, defeating John Edwards (30%), who edged slightly ahead of Mrs Clinton.

While Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas, was until recently a virtual unknown, far back in a crowded Republican field. Mr Huckabee polled 34%, ahead of Mr Romney, who aims to become the first Mormon US president, who got 25%,

Both Iowa and New Hampshire can boost contenders’ campaigns.

“It will be a different race here,” former Massachusetts governor Mr Romney vowed. He is now set to switch the focus of his criticism to Senator John McCain from last night’s surprise Iowa winner Mr Huckabee.

Mr McCain is staging a 2008 revival in the state he won in an unsuccessful 2000 run for the presidency.

Similarly, Mrs Clinton made clear she considered Mr Obama’s positions fair game for attack.

“It’s hard to know exactly where he stands, and people need to ask that,” she said. “I think everybody is supposed to be vetted and tested.”

New Hampshire, a small north-eastern state with a reputation for independent-minded voters, holds its primary election on Tuesday. That is only five days after Iowa, an unprecedented compression of the US political campaign calendar.

Unlike Iowa, where a small percentage of the state’s voters participated in caucuses to indicate presidential preferences, all registered voters in New Hampshire vote directly for their preferred candidate.

With President George Bush constitutionally barred from seeking election, both parties ran costly wide-open campaigns in Iowa.

Mr Obama hopes his victory in Iowa foreshadowed a New Hampshire win and will give him momentum in an intense five-week period of campaigning that culminates in more than two dozen contests on February 5.

On the Republican side, Mr Romney, who spent millions of his own money in his surprising Iowa loss, needs victory in New Hampshire to have a chance to recover the front-running status he lost to the lightly regarded Mr Huckabee.

The Iowa winner, a former pastor, is not well-known in New Hampshire, and the evangelical base that carried him to victory in Iowa is lacking in New Hampshire.

Democrats are seen as having an edge in the November presidential election because of Bush’s low popularity and widespread criticism of his handling of the Iraq war. But the war has not dominated the presidential campaign as many voters have been worried more about the US economy, immigration and other issues.

Mr Obama held two rallies in New Hampshire today, playfully but pointedly addressed the Clinton campaign’s earlier criticisms of him as an overambitious figure who wanted to be president ever since he was at school.

“This feels good,” he told a rally in an airport hangar in Portsmouth. “This feels just like I imagined when I was talking to my kindergarten teacher.” The crowd laughed.

Mr Romney attributed Mr Huckabee’s Iowa win largely to his background as a Southern Baptist preacher.

“It was a wonderful strategy that he pursued effectively,” Mr Romney said, speaking of Mr Huckabee’s Iowa campaign. “I don’t think that’s the strategy that’s going to work in every state.”

In any event, New Hampshire presented a different political alignment, with precious little time for candidates to remake their campaigns and adapt.

Mr McCain and Mr Romney have been neck-and-neck in pre-Iowa polls, with Mr Huckabee lagging, while Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama have topped surveys on the Democratic side.

Mrs Clinton hoped to become her family’s newest “Comeback Kid” in a state that revived Bill Clinton’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1992.

Bill Clinton turned a creditable New Hampshire finish into eight years in the White House, part of a background of experience his wife is claiming.

She promised a rally at the Nashua airport that she would answer as many questions as possible about her candidacy in the short run to the primary, and addressed several about her electability after her Iowa defeat. She finished third, behind Mr Obama and former Senator John Edwards.

“Anyone we nominate will be thrown into that blazing inferno of a general election,” she said. “I’ve been through the fires, and it makes it far less likely they are going to be able to do to me what they intend to do to whomever we nominate.”

She was travelling through the state in a lavishly painted campaign bus bearing her latest slogan: “Big Challenges, Real Solutions – Time to Pick a President.”

Iowa’s results tightened the Democratic field – Senators Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd dropped out shortly after last night’s outcome was clear.

Mr Edwards mounted an energetic, populist campaign only to see himself repeat his 2004 second-place finish in Iowa. He vowed to continue, but he trails Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton in polls and in money.

On the Republican side, Mr Huckabee enters New Hampshire with little money and little time to mount an adequate come-from-behind surge. Tradition also pulls against him.

George Bush Snr in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988 and 1996 and George Bush Jnr in 2000 - all were Iowa caucus winners who lost their New Hampshire primaries.

Mr Huckabee’s Iowa victory served to keep the Republican contest wide open. He won by 9% and Mr Romney now faces a reinvigorated Mr McCain.

Actor and former Senator Fred Thompson was looking beyond New Hampshire to South Carolina. And Rudy Giuliani, fading in New Hampshire, was counting on Florida and big state contests on February 5.

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