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Clinton Team Retools For N.H.

By Anne E. Kornblut
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Iowa? What Iowa?

That was the blithe approach that senior Clinton advisers tried to take following their candidate's stinging third-place loss in the Iowa caucuses on Thursday night. "I think the worst thing would be to overcount what Iowa is," Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, said early Friday morning.

As the news sank in, Clinton advisers adopted a defiantly upbeat tone and began planning their recovery. They did not publicly concede making any mistakes in Iowa. Instead they blamed the quirky caucus process and the record turnout, and declared they were turning a corner into friendlier territory here.

"On to New Hampshire," campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe announced as he boarded the chartered press plane for the overnight trip to the next contest state.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who conceded in Iowa and then flew separately to the Granite State -- put on a similarly brave smile after the loss, telling her senior staff members that she appreciated their work in a contest that always presented challenges for her. But she and her aides also signaled their intention to now ratchet up the race, aggressively countering Obama in the five days ahead.

On Saturday night, the Democratic contenders will participate in another debate -- an event that is now expected to produce fireworks, as Clinton tries to climb back into the front-runner slot. She is also now planning to draw even sharper distinctions between herself and Obama on the question of change, after watching voters who wanted a new direction select her main rival for the nomination on Thursday night.

The post-game analysis by the Clinton campaign consisted mainly of claiming it hadn't mattered. "It wouldn't be wise of any of us to read too much into what happened in Iowa," spokesman Jay Carson told reporters shortly after midnight. The caucus has "rarely picked the nominee," Penn said a little later. "The last time it picked the president it was 1976. And in 1976 'uncommitted' won."

McAuliffe, the ever-ebullient campaign chairman, even quibbled with the notion that Clinton had come in third, pointing out that she virtually tied former Sen. John Edwards. "Listen, we gave it everything we had," McAuliffe said. He predicted a victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 8, saying the primary setup would favor her much more than the caucus system had.

Still, the mood among top Clinton advisers heading into Friday morning was as low as it has ever been throughout almost a full year of campaigning as the details of her loss sank in: Clinton lost among women, supposedly the bedrock of her candidacy. She failed to persuade Iowans that her level of experience mattered. Even her vaunted message machine was forced to concede that it had been wrong in disputing predictions just a few days out that Sen. Barack Obama would win.

"The Des Moines Register turned out to be right," McAuliffe said, referring to a much-debated poll that came out shortly before the caucuses.

And the dismissive talk about Iowa belied a central truth about her campaign: Clinton worked extremely hard to try to win the state, shipping out her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, to run strategy there during the final weeks of the race. She spent millions of dollars advertising in the state. She repeatedly urged Iowans to vote for her, casting their decision as vital to the future of the nation. Former president Bill Clinton joked a few days earlier that the fate of the free world hung in Iowans' hands.

Solis Doyle, in a conference call with staff early Friday, described the Iowa results as "unprecedented" -- and in her retelling, in a good way, in that it drew so many new supporters to the polls, according to someone who listened to the call. She then detoured home for a few days to regroup before heading to New Hampshire.

Others flew straight on. Penn, the chief strategist and numbers cruncher; Mandy Grunwald, her ad maker; Phil Singer, a senior communications director; Kim Molstre, her scheduler; McAuliffe and his wife; and Carson all flew directly to Manchester. Even former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright made the exhausting trip from one early contest state to the next on board an MD-80 airliner, where flight attendants served chicken and turkey sandwiches with Godiva chocolates in the middle of the night. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also hopped a ride.

For a candidate sometimes accused of arrogance, Clinton did little in the immediate aftermath of the Iowa caucuses to suggest that she held herself responsible for the defeat or intended to change her message to attract voters in other states.

Instead she and her advisers blamed the electorate and the process, saying the Iowa system is flawed. Clinton, in her concession speech, mentioned that some members of the military who are registered voters in Iowa were excluded from participating.

At the same time, her campaign advisers made some arguments that seemed to defy logic: They contended that, although the Iowa system is too exclusive, she also lost because so many people participated in the process.

And they said that Clinton is the candidate of change, despite clear evidence from caucus night that voters in Iowa saw Obama, not the New York senator, that way.

"People want change, and she's the candidate to deliver it," McAuliffe said.

Penn said he had seen evidence of a late shift in the electorate that favored Obama and was thus not entirely surprised by the caucus results. He anticipated a strong pushback from Clinton in the next few days, especially on the idea that Obama is ready to serve as president ? and that she is part of the Washington establishment.

"I think you're going to see us moving aggressively to make sure that all voters understand that she is about change for all generations," Penn said at approximately 2:30 a.m., as reporters surrounded him in the aisle of the plane midair somewhere over the Lake Michigan.

Asked how she could accomplish that change in such a short time, with just a matter of days to campaign in New Hampshire, Penn offered no specifics. But with a wry smile, he said: "Stay tuned."

By Washington Post editors  |  January 4, 2008; 7:03 AM ET
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