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Even the leaders run on last legs

Times Staff Writers

Hillary Rodham Clinton choked up. Barack Obama flubbed his lines. Even Chuck Norris, Mike Huckabee’s action-star sidekick, was laid low.

Fatigue, tension and, for some, the prospect of harsh judgment weighed heavily on White House hopefuls -- and their supporters -- as they churned across New Hampshire in a final burst of campaigning before today’s first-in-the-nation primary.

A record turnout of more than 500,000 voters, many of them independents, was expected, reflecting the hard-fought nature of the Democratic and Republican races, and New Hampshire’s pride in its traditional role in culling the field of contenders.

The latest surveys showed Sen. Obama of Illinois enjoying a surge of support after his victory in Thursday’s Iowa caucuses, with Sen. Clinton of New York trailing well behind and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson even further back.

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On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were locked in a close contest. Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee -- the GOP winner in Iowa -- was far behind, bunched with ex-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

The state is crucial for Clinton, who is trying to bounce back from a third-place finish in Iowa, and her teary eyes introduced an added overlay of uncertainty to the contest.

Some compared her emotional display -- brought on by a friendly question about the rigors of campaigning -- to the career-killing moment in 1972 when presidential hopeful Edmund S. Muskie supposedly wept after a newspaper editorial attacked his wife. (To this day, some assert those were merely New Hampshire snowflakes melting on Muskie’s face.)

But Clinton’s rivals chose to ignore or brush aside the moment. Obama offered no comment, and Edwards, when asked by reporters about a possible Muskie repeat, replied: “These campaigns are grueling, and they’re tough and difficult affairs.”

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Some suggested the tears might redound to Clinton’s benefit.

“Her campaign in New Hampshire has been a portrait of self-control, of organization and discipline,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist. “If anything, it probably lacked a little spontaneity. This adds some humanity.”

Perhaps of greater concern for Clinton are growing doubts among her supporters.

“I don’t think there is any question that there is a lot of nervousness about where this is all headed,” said Leon E. Panetta, a Clinton donor who served as her husband’s White House chief of staff.

For McCain and Romney, their candidacies may be riding on New Hampshire.

McCain, the winner in the 2000 GOP New Hampshire primary, is counting on a victory to complete his comeback after many left his campaign for dead over the summer. Romney, as a next-door neighbor of New Hampshire’s, needs a win to recover from his poor second-place showing in Iowa behind the vastly outspent Huckabee.

On Monday, Romney was looking past Clinton, yet another sign of her diminished stature. He argued that McCain, who has served 20 years in the Senate, was too weak to face Obama, a first-term senator, in the general election.

“There is no way that our party would be successful in the fall if we put forward a long-serving senator to stand up against Barack Obama’s message of change,” Romney told reporters in Stratham, at the corporate headquarters of the Timberland shoe company.

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Barreling through a 14-hour swing across southern New Hampshire -- and occasionally mangling some of his remarks -- Romney also sought to dispel any notion that he was waging a one- or two-state campaign predicated on victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“From here, we’re going to go on to Michigan and South Carolina and Nevada,” said Romney, who has sunk millions of his personal fortune into the presidential race. “This is a 50-state campaign.”

After repeatedly clashing with Romney during two bitter debates over the weekend, McCain largely opted not to engage. “Let’s tell voters why they should vote for us,” he said to reporters.

On a frantic day of campaigning, McCain charged from one side of New Hampshire to the other, superstitiously retracing the same trail he followed the day before his 2000 victory. Departing from his relaxed town hall meeting style, McCain’s events were short, staccato rallies that stretched no more than 20 minutes.

At a rally in Keene, he took one of his few pokes at Romney. “One of my opponents not long ago said you don’t need foreign policy experience,” McCain said, taking a bit of creative license. “My friends, look at the world -- look at the world and see if you need that kind of experience to make the kind of judgments that are necessary.”

Clinton and Obama matched their Republican counterparts stride for tired stride, though it was clear the campaign was taking a toll on both of them.

Normally the most controlled of candidates, Clinton teared up and her voice broke at the end of a morning stop when she was asked about the physical wear and tear of running for president. “It’s not easy,” she told a small group of undecided voters in Portsmouth.

She referred to some unflattering photographs that have circulated widely on the Internet. “Some people think elections are a game,” Clinton said. “They think it’s like who’s up or who’s down. . . . Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds. And we do it -- each one of us -- because we care about our country.”

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Throughout the day, Clinton continued to draw a contrast with Obama by laying out her experience as a former first lady and a second-term senator, and arguing, “There’s a big difference between talk and action.”

“No matter how beautifully delivered a speech is, when the words end, it’s over,” she told a crowd of several hundred in Dover.

Clinton ended her day with a raucous rally in Manchester attended by several thousand people. With her husband and daughter beside her, she told screaming supporters about a trip she took to Iraq with McCain.

“He and I have done some traveling together,” she said. “And what happens on the road stays on the road.”

The crowd laughed.

In a passing of the baton, Bill Clinton watched but did not address the crowd.

Obama began his day apologizing for his scratchy voice. He told a crowd in Claremont that a doctor had told him to stop talking.

Realistically, however, that was not an option. So Obama worked his way through an 18-hour schedule, rasping out his message of change, sipping tea with lemon and honey, and sometimes stumbling over lines he has delivered hundreds of times before.

Obama ramped up his criticism of Clinton -- without mentioning her by name -- recalling a debate in which she warned against offering false hopes.

“There’s no such thing,” Obama declared before a standing-room-only crowd at the Lebanon Opera House, where hundreds more were stranded outside. “Did JFK look up at the moon and say, ‘Ah, false hope. Too far. Reality check. Can’t do it.’ ”

“Dr. King standing on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over that magnificent crowd, the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument: ‘Sorry guys. False hope. The dream will die. It can’t be done. Ha! False hope.’

“We don’t need leaders to tell us what we can’t do,” Obama said. “We need those who can inspire us to do -- to say, ‘Yes we can,’ to say, ‘We believe.’ That’s what America is looking for right now.”

Edwards, meantime, went all out with a nonstop, 36-hour bus tour that threaded around the coast, the White Mountains and the borders of Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.

Stopping at diners, house parties and campaign offices -- sometimes in the dead of night -- Edwards repeatedly asserted he was the lone Democratic candidate who could fight the special interests and corporations he said had an “iron-fist grip” on the country’s politics.

“This fight for the future of the middle class is so crucial,” he said after a morning town hall attended by hundreds in Laconia. “The next president of the United States has to be independent of these well-financed, entrenched special interests that are doing so much damage to the middle class.”

Other candidates -- banking on later victories -- felt less pressure, and their schedules reflected as much.

Huckabee had just three events, and spent much of his time cracking wise. At a stop in Mason, down a long, winding country road, he introduced Norris and pitched the actor’s brand of fitness equipment.

Still, Huckabee managed to draw some of the biggest crowds of his campaign, numbering in the hundreds, even though the celebrity half of the “Huck & Chuck” roadshow -- as the campaign calls it -- was forced to skip a noontime event in Concord because of illness.

Giuliani, counting on a breakout victory in Florida in three weeks, began with a Nashua diner stop at 11 a.m. -- by then his rivals had already held more than half a dozen events -- and ended with 5:45 p.m. town hall meeting in Derry. The stops were close enough that, had they been in New York, Giuliani could have hit them all by subway.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Scott Martelle, Seema Mehta, Dan Morain, Peter Nicholas and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.


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