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More Than a Feeling

By Joel Achenbach
DOVER, N.H. -- So much of politics is about feel. That may bother people who are extremely rational, who resent any deviation from data and policy, but out here on the hustings, voters often go on feel, on instinct and on emotion.

A college professor at the Mike Huckabee event in Henniker the other day explained the phenomenon perfectly (though she wouldn't let me use her name -- might somehow roil the faculty back at the department of sociology). She said she was scouting Huckabee not because she supported him but because he might charm his way to the nomination, and as a Democrat she wants to know what her party could be up against.

"People FEEL him," she said. "And often the American voter will vote on feel, and ultimately vote against his or her own self-interest based on feel."

(Bill Clinton, by the way, took a swipe at feelings-based politics at a rally in Amherst, according to the dispatch from my colleague Shailagh Murray: "Do you want a feeling of change, do you want the facts of change?")

The politics of feel is so much more pronounced at a political rally as a big vote approaches. The hard-bitten journalists who told me they thought Obama was a little flat at Concord High School on Friday missed the larger point: Thousands of people were screaming and cheering and stamping their feet. Obama's feet need never touch the ground -- he's in another zone, he's flying high, he's got anti-gravity on his side.

And then there's the junior senator from New York.

At the risk of hurting her feelings, let us ponder the possibility that she'll slip all the way to third in Tuesday's vote. I'm going to go see her in Nashua shortly in hopes that I catch her before she drops out of the race entirely. After last night's debate performance -- she came out of St. Anselm's College so torn up she needed to borrow bandages from Mitt Romney -- there are already people talking about the end of the Clinton era.

That may be premature -- the latest credible poll showed her tied with Obama here -- but when John Edwards, defending Obama, flung his left hand at her face and uttered the words "status quo" you could feel the hull being ripped below the water line.

Sure, she still has fans here. Marc Nozell of Merrimack told me Friday that he saw her last year in Portsmouth, and she wasn't the person so often portrayed as "kinda bitchy, kind of distant, not very warm." He said, "I like the experience. I think she can start working. She knows all the players."

But it's not shaping up as an election where knowing all the players is what the majority of voters want. (Obama, we recall from his most recent book, had trouble even getting into the 2000 Democratic National Convention because he didn't have a credential.)

One of the mysteries of this Democratic race is how a candidate who looked poised to be the first female major party nominee can be viewed as such a mainstream, Establishment, status quo choice. Yesterday, after the Edwards event in Concord, four women, all middle-aged, stood in a group and discussed the various things they liked about Edwards, how he made them feel as though the cares about them personally. I brought up the fact that they have a chance to elect the first woman president. Jodi Roos, 48, of Concord, said, "You vote for the candidate, you don't vote for the sex of the person."

Clinton cannot be both the "Republican in sheep's clothing" that progressive Democrats claim she is, and the Trotskyite that the conservative Republicans have always believed her to be. If her campaign disintegrates she will no doubt feel unfairly trashed. But she can't blame a vast right wing conspiracy this time. Her problem right now is that a lot of the people who really, really don't like her are Democrats.

What's the political maneuver, the daring gambit, the elegant gesture that can, after all these years, change that?

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 6, 2008; 10:18 AM ET
Categories:  Joel's New Hampshire Diary  
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