Editor's note: This column was written Tuesday, Jan. 8; the Times went to press before polls closed in New Hampshire.
Here are the most compelling questions and one man's answers for tonight's New Hampshire primary.
Q: What is the major unknown factor?
A: New Hampshire is noted for fierce independence. Four in 10 of the state's voters call themselves independent. These people may vote in either primary, but not, of course, in both.
The overwhelming strength among them rests with one Republican, John McCain, on account of his maverick style and record, and one Democrat, Barack Obama, on account of his embodiment of generational, political and cultural change.
If each of these men gets a robust share of the independents, both will win. If the independents go heavily one way or the other, then Mitt Romney would have a Republican prayer or Hillary Clinton a Democratic one — since Romney and Clinton have more traditional appeal within the strict party establishments.
Q: What's likely to happen?
A: McCain and Obama each probably will get a sufficient share to win — McCain because he ran well in New Hampshire eight years ago and has garnered every state newspaper endorsement in sight, and Obama because people find him and his “change” message exciting.
Q: If Hillary Clinton loses, is she finished?
A: Not quite. Even if she loses tonight and in Nevada on Jan. 19 and in South Carolina on Jan. 26, she should hang around until the big array of primaries Feb. 5, just to test the breadth of her shallow appeal.
She has more officeholder endorsements than anyone and those officeholders get to be super-delegates to the convention. Most will stand by her through another loss, even as they start to talk nervously about watching the results closely.
Q: She seemed so recently to be marching to victory. What's gone wrong?
A: They're arguing about that inside her campaign. Some advisors are accusing others of failing to identify the prevailing momentum for dramatic change.
Basically, she's yesterday's news, and not necessarily pleasant news. There is Clinton fatigue, and that goes, too, for Bill, who draws polite but passive crowds as he campaigns for his wife.
She keeps changing her tactics and slogans, reinforcing a notion that she lacks authenticity.
She always wins debates. She has a splendid senatorial record. She is well-prepared to be president. She's probably smarter than those guys. She's likely the strongest general election candidate, mainly because there's not much left for the Republicans to say about her. You can't swift-boat the swift-boated.
But the irony is that the first woman to contend seriously for the presidency has come to appear the unimaginative, unexciting alternative. It's like people gathered for a Beyonce concert, and Joan Baez walked out.
Q: Is what's happening to Hillary fair?
A: No, but politics isn't fair. She has a record of bipartisan cooperation as a senator. Obama's rhetoric soars about a “new politics,” but specifics are scant. Obama is Gary Hart with more personality and better cadence. Hillary's shot the other night at Obama's words rather than actions was a less-catchy revival of Walter Mondale's old and decisive jab at Hart, asking, “Where's the beef?”
Q: Why is Mike Huckabee so far behind in New Hampshire after he won Iowa?
A: There aren't a lot of church-state mixers in New England. They have religious values in New England, and live devotedly by them. But they wisely separate those from politics. People in New Hampshire don't much believe God commands them to elect a president in His supposed image to impose their religion through government.
Q: How is Huckabee likely to do tonight?
A: He should finish a distant third behind McCain and Romney, carving out 15 to 18 percent, which he could spin as a creditable showing. Or he could finish fourth behind Rudy Giuliani or even fifth behind the libertarian Ron Paul. That would be a bit of a buzz-killer for him.
Q: Who'll be our next president?
A: Today — Obama, I suppose.