Ripping up the script

January 09, 2008

Yesterday's New Hampshire primary illustrates why people get hooked on politics: It's exquisitely unpredictable.

Barack Obama, the freshman senator on his way to being anointed prohibitive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, ran smack into Hillary Rodham Clinton, the previous prohibitive favorite who teared up but refused to get out of his way.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, a maverick Republican whose campaign had been given up for lost, smashed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered more sympathetic to concerns of GOP regulars.

Neither competition would likely have developed if yesterday's balloting had been a national primary instead of the second in a one-two punch by two tiny states not at all representative of the country at large. Senator Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani might easily have swamped the field if the voting began on Feb. 5, when New York, California and 20 other states are scheduled to signal their preferences.

Such a process may seem more fair, but wouldn't necessarily produce the best outcome. The great strength of the current cockamamie primary structure is that it forces the candidates through months of retail campaigning among voters who are paying close attention. Famous folks who look good from afar sometimes pale upon closer inspection. Unknowns get a chance to strut their stuff alongside the favorites, with or without a trunk full of money.

A better primary system would rotate these vetting duties among the states and regions. But it is nonetheless healthy for American democracy that even the richest and most politically powerful candidates cannot simply create an aura of invincibility and thus make it so.

Yesterday's results signaled both nomination contests have a ways yet to go. In the wake of Senator Obama's upset win in the Iowa caucuses last week, Mrs. Clinton was able to put a brake on the bandwagon effect that often propels candidates with whom voters are newly enchanted. But she has never had his crowd appeal.

Senator McCain's New Hampshire comeback - coupled with Mike Huckabee's surprise win in the Iowa caucuses and third-place finish behind Mr. Romney yesterday - suggests even greater turmoil in that contest.

These early primaries are something like off-Broadway theater openings. Flaws are exposed, and weak actors are weeded out. That's valuable no matter who's doing it.

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