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Anti-Clinton Vote, Singing Two Different Tunes

Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne drew a crowd for Edwards in New Hampshire. (Reuters).

By Alec MacGillis
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Call it the Showdown on Elm Street. On a snowy evening here last night, voters were treated to an only-in-New Hampshire moment encapsulating one of the main subplots of the Democratic presidential primary campaign, the struggle over who will be the main alternative to Hillary Clinton.

In a large function room at the Center of New Hampshire hotel, more than 500 voters turned out to see Barack Obama. Starting an hour or so later, a five-minute walk away, just off the main drag of Elm Street, nearly as many other voters turned out to see John Edwards at the Palace Theater, with an opening act by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.

For the handful who rushed from one event to the other, it was a jarring conjunction. Obama and Edwards are sounding so many of the same themes -- warning against special interests, arguing that the usual approach in Washington won't suffice -- yet their presentation and framing of that message are so radically different that one almost feels, in passing straight from one to the other, as if one had stepped into a time warp. The outcome of the Democratic race may yet depend on whether Obama or Edwards is able to assert dominance and win over enough of the other's supporters in time to emerge as a strong alternative to Clinton. Yet after seeing the two set so closely together here, such a confluence seemed about as likely as expecting bluegrass fans to flock to the philharmonic. Stylistically, the anti-Clinton vote truly is divided.

At the Center of New Hampshire, Obama entered to jaunty Paul Simon and, clad in a black suit, delivered his stump speech in his customary lofty tones and unruffled manner, striking populist notes about reducing the influence of lobbyists, but wrapping this inside a broader message of reaching across the country's political divide to create a "working majority" to solve the nation's problems. His jabs at Clinton were, as usual, in code; the closest he came to an outright shot at anyone was a remark, delivered with a broad smile, about the fact that cracking down on all 12 million of the nation's illegal immigrants would mean emptying the jails to make room for the "housekeepers at Mitt Romney's home."

Down the street, Raitt and Browne had ceded the stage to Edwards, who was pacing in faded blue jeans and a windbreaker, loudly declaiming, with a slightly hoarse voice, about the root of the nation's ills: "It's about corporate power and greed. It's not very complicated," he declared. The crowd packed into the old theater roared. If one blurred one's eyes, one might have thought it was 1892 again, with Tom Watson leading the Populist charge. (Adding to the time warp confusion was the stage set behind Edwards, a backdrop of half-timbered English houses for "A Christmas Carol.") Edwards recalled his father's advice to him when he was a kid, growing up in some "rough places," after he'd gotten his "butt kicked" by another boy: that he should never start a fight but also never walk away from one. "I was born for this fight," Edwards said. "You have to stand up for yourself. This is a tough world." Like Obama, he exhorted his audience to "stand up," but in Edwards's case, it sounded less like a summons to idealism and civic engagement than a call to arms. "You're going to rise up and create a wave that cannot be stopped," he shouted, perspiring and almost winded from the speech, as if he was already in the ring with the adversary.

Afterward, as many in the audience thronged the stage to reach Raitt and Browne (suggesting that some had come more for them than Edwards), Bill Bruno, a systems engineer from Bedford, marveled at the contrast between the two candidates, whom he is trying to decide between. "Edwards presents himself as more of a fighter, whereas I think it's hard for Obama to do that because he's younger and more inexperienced, so he tries to be a little more polished," Bruno said. Edwards, on the other hand, "just says, 'There is where it's at, and this is how I'm going to do it.'"

Bruno voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Al Gore and John Kerry in the past two primaries, but said he will make up his mind this year based entirely on which Democrat he thinks has a better chance of beating Hillary Clinton in the primaries, because he thinks the country has had enough of political dynasties. ("There's a big difference between [Bill and Hillary Clinton]. Bill was smart but he was one of the guys," he said. "Hillary's smart and she'll tell you she's smart, and she'll tell you how she's going to do it, and not bring you in.") He is worried, he said, that the votes of those who feel the same way he does will be split between Obama and Edwards, but his hope is that soon enough there will be a confluence between the dreamer and the fighter.

"I hope," he said, "that after the first couple states people will say, 'I want to go with whoever can [beat Clinton], all the people who are tired of the same old same old."

By Washington Post editors  |  December 20, 2007; 10:45 AM ET
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