MANCHESTER, N.H. - With less than a month to go until the New Hampshire primary, two new polls yesterday showed that Hillary Clinton's once-daunting lead has evaporated, putting her into a dead heat with Barack Obama.
The polls suggest that the Clinton campaign can no longer rely on New Hampshire as its "firewall," where the New York senator could recover from a possible loss in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa five days earlier.
The new polls may reflect some of the buzz created by Obama's appearance with Oprah Winfrey in Manchester on Sunday, an event that drew about 6,000 people and was one of the largest in primary history. But Obama's campaign preferred to characterize the tightening race as a reflection of its steady organizational effort and voters' increasing interest in the Illinois senator.
"I think people desperately want to vote for someone, and we're trying in everything that we do to make that possible," Ned Helms, a co chairman of Obama's New Hampshire campaign, told reporters yesterday.
Clinton's team shrugged off the new polls as unsurprising, saying they had always expected the race to tighten before the Jan. 8 primary. "It's New Hampshire; nobody wins by 20 points," said Nick Clemons, director of Clinton's New Hampshire organization. "I feel really good about our organization on the ground, and we're going into the stretch run now."
But in what may be a signal of the campaign's underlying nervousness, one of Clinton's state campaign chairmen raised the issue of Obama's youthful experimentation with drugs, saying it would provide easy fodder for Republicans to exploit during a general election campaign.
"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight . . . and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use," Bill Shaheen, the husband of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, said in an interview with The
In response, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, pointed out that Obama openly discussed his use of marijuana and cocaine as a youth in his coming-of-age memoir, "Dreams From My Father," and in an event last month with Manchester high school students.
Plouffe sought to cast Clinton as relentlessly negative, rebuking her campaign for an attack that he said showed a "desperate effort to slow her slide in the polls."
Kathleen Strand, a spokeswoman for Clinton in New Hampshire, moved quickly to distance the campaign from Shaheen's comments, saying they "were not authorized or condoned by the campaign in any way." Shaheen did not return phone calls seeking comment, but later apologized in a one-sentence statement issued by the campaign.
Such tactics could be dangerous for Clinton's campaign, which has sharpened its criticism of Obama recently as he has risen in the polls, raising questions about his experience and accusing him in TV ads of leaving out 15 million uninsured Americans from his healthcare plan. A backlash, however, followed when the Clinton campaign questioned Obama's portrayal of himself as only recently interested in running for president by pointing out an essay he wrote in kindergarten.
Likability is already one of Clinton's main vulnerabilities in New Hampshire, according to a CNN/WMUR poll released yesterday that had Clinton ahead of Obama by only one percentage point among likely Democratic primary voters, down from a 14-percentage-point lead last month and a 23-percentage point lead in September. Forty-three percent said Obama was most likable of the eight Democrats running for president; only 12 percent said Clinton was.
"She's not going to have that reservoir of goodwill and trust that she can rely on if things start going bad in the campaign," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll.
Voters also see Obama as far less likely to act like a "typical politician" compared with Clinton, and far more likely to unite the country.
But the new CNN/WMUR poll indicated that Clinton has retained some of her core strengths and that voters saw her as far more electable and better prepared for the job than Obama. Asked which candidate had the right experience to be president; 44 percent of the likely Democratic voters said Clinton did, compared with only 11 percent for Obama.
"I think what she has to do is to reconnect with voters and explain to them the importance of experience and why she could win in November," Smith said.
Clinton has plenty of opportunity to do so. Only 24 percent of voters in the CNN/WMUR poll said they had definitely picked a candidate.
A second poll released yesterday, by Rasmussen Reports, had Obama leading Clinton 31 percent to 28 percent. A third poll, by Suffolk University and WHDH-TV, also showed a tightening race, though Clinton was still leading.
Both campaigns are working hard in New Hampshire. The Clinton campaign has about 100 staffers statewide and said it has made 1.4 million phone calls to the 300,000-plus regular Democratic primary voters, knocked on 162,000 doors since Oct. 1, and handed out 5,000 yard signs.
But the Obama campaign, which has more than 100 staffers in New Hampshire, said yesterday that it has made more than 1.1 million phone calls, knocked on 150,000 doors since Oct. 1, and sent out 105,000 handwritten postcards to voters.
Yesterday, a half-dozen voters gathered around a table in a small neighborhood restaurant in Manchester to hear Ted Sorensen, the former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, discuss his reasons for endorsing Obama. Among them was Mary Farwell, an undeclared voter from Hooksett who has not yet settled on a candidate.
Farwell, who described Clinton as "too polarizing," said her doubts about Clinton have grown as her campaign's tone has become "a little strident." And Obama, whom she had dismissed early on because of his lack of experience, now seems more plausible.
"People I really respect are supporting him," she said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.