Bill Clinton was the walking dead. That was the conventional wisdom on the day of the New Hampshire primary in 1992. The smart money said he was going to be lucky to finish third and was on his way out of the race.
That’s what happens when a one-time frontrunner gets hammered with both a sex scandal and a draft evasion scandal in the weeks before the primary. Support peeled away from Clinton in layers after that; money started to be a problem and even a ’60 Minutes’ interview that aired right after the Super Bowl couldn’t save him. The veteran journalists covering his campaign had seen this death spiral before and told everyone within shouting distance that Bubba (why did they insist on calling this Rhodes Scholar and Georgetown/Yale Law grad ‘Bubba’?) was finished.
I’d already packed for my drive back to Washington, after having moved to Manchester in early January. It was mid-February and I’d seen most of the state by ground and air, riding in vans, driving my car everywhere and taking one extraordinarily bumpy small plane ride that reminded me life was precious.
The night before the election, a restless Clinton couldn’t stand to be in his hotel room any more. A staffer gave me a yell and a few of us went bowling with the governor. There were no TV crews around and it was too late for the 11 p.m. news anyway, but that didn’t stop Clinton from shaking every hand in the joint, then going outside and greeting every person in a two-block radius. When I left, he was still at it — partcipating in some hopeless last-minute polticking that I quietly thought was a little pathetic.
The rest, of course, is history. Propelled by that sort of hard retail campaigning and the adoration of a staff that hadn’t been made cynical yet, Clinton finished second in New Hampshire. He proclaimed himself the Comeback Kid and ground it out for a few weeks until his campaign hit Georgia, Illinois and Michigan. Clinton won all three and was on his way to the White House.
In the months to come, I’d watch him accept his party’s nomination at the national convention in New York, would sit in the third row at the base of Capitol Hill while he gave his inaugural address, and started visiting the White House almost every day as though I was working the local cop beat I had been handling only six years earlier. But it was that primary night in New Hampshire, when Clinton got off the mat in the most improbable winning presidential campaign of my life, that will top the very long list of my political memories.
New Hampshire was boring in this cycle. The Democratic race was uncontested in any real sense and no one ever threatened Mitt Romney on the GOP side. But I’ll remember ’92 — and ’96, and 2000, when I made shorter trips to the place where I learned what it meant to be a political journalist.