MANCHESTER, N.H. - Before dawn on Friday, Senator Barack Obama's plane touched down on the icy tarmac at Pease Airport in Portsmouth after his kinetic win in the Iowa caucuses. His momentum was palpable, and it only grew.
Over the long weekend before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, he packed thousands into high school gyms and quaint opera halls, where voters waited hours to get in. He fell behind schedule by greeting overflow rooms and stragglers left out in the cold. Polls and pundits predicted a decisive victory.
"Something is happening, people," Obama said often, suggesting that his "coalition of change and progress" was on the march. The movement was the argument.
And yet, when the polls closed Tuesday, Senator Hillary Clinton shocked the political world by coming out on top. Voters and analysts point to a paradox that may explain why: It was Clinton's very vulnerability - her dim prospects in the primary, combined with perceived attacks by rivals and the media - that won her a late, powerful surge of sympathy from New Hampshire voters.
"Here's a woman who by any measure is extremely capable, strong, intelligent, articulate, and politically savvy," said Wayne Lesperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker. "And what may have won her the New Hampshire primary is the sympathy vote."
Analysts say it was not a single defining moment in the closing days of the primary race that drew voters to Clinton, but a series of them: perceptions that Obama and former senator John Edwards teamed up to attack her on her in the Democratic debate Saturday night; Clinton's widely publicized emotion-filled response to a voter question Monday morning about how the campaign was wearing on her; her more open, accessible style at her final rallies; and the repeated coronations Obama received from the press and from pollsters.
Taken together, those late developments in the race and the large pool of voters who made up their minds in the last 48 hours may have given Clinton a victory that no poll was going to forecast. Jennifer Donahue, senior adviser at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, said Granite State voters, who do not like it when they think the press is piling on a candidate or trying to predetermine an outcome, made their final choice undetectably late.
"You have to keep your ears and eyes open once the polling stops," Donahue said. "That's why there's always a surprise. That was at the very time she was looking more human."
Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that he had a conversation with the senator the morning of primary day, and that she sensed something felt different on the ground.
"She said, 'I know what the polls say, but I can tell you the response I've been getting from voters has been very, very strong in the last 24 hours,' " Wolfson said.
Many other factors, of course, also contributed to Clinton's victory, including that an unexpected number of independent voters - New Hampshire's biggest chunk of voters - opted to participate in the Republican primary. Clinton's campaign also says it was working to lock up votes from absentee ballots before Obama's Iowa victory shifted the dynamic.
A major reason Clinton was victorious Tuesday was the support she won from women, who made up almost 60 percent of Democratic voters, exit poll data show. Unlike in Iowa, where Obama won more support from women en route to winning last week's caucuses, women voters chose Clinton by a 12-percentage point margin, data from CNN indicate.
Clinton's campaign, as well as outside groups working on her behalf, made a concerted effort to reach out to New Hampshire women. Analysts say those women may have been especially receptive to Clinton's struggles in the final days, including the question Monday morning that nearly brought her to tears.
"It made her look human and it made it look like everyone was out to get her, which I think resonated with women voters," said Dean Lacy, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Advisers said yesterday that Clinton, often tagged by critics as a cold, calculating politician, will emphasize warmness and openness as the nomination battle moves to the next phase.
At the same time, Clinton, in an interview that was set to air last night on CBS News, cited her toughness in the face of what she said was a "buddy system" attack from Edwards and Obama during Saturday's debate.
"I was thinking, 'Well, whoever's up there against the Republican nominee in the . . . debates come the fall is not going to have a buddy to fall back on,"' Clinton said. "You know, you're out there all by yourself."
The candidates seemed to reverse roles in the final hours. As Clinton humbled herself to the circumstances of playing catch-up after Iowa, Obama assumed the swagger and caution that were hallmarks of Clinton's campaign throughout 2007. He relied on oratory instead of interaction, going long stretches without answering voter queries, largely ignoring the press, and even appearing to taunt undecided voters who came to hear him make his case.
"I see that guy with the beard over there," Obama said Sunday in Salem. "We are coming after you."
Obama displayed enough of a front-runner's attitude, analysts say, that New Hampshire voters wanted to give the race a reality check.
"New Hampshire likes to thumb their nose at pundits and prognosticators," Lesperance said. "A lot of those voters did so at the last minute in response to what looked like a coronation for Barack Obama."
More than anything, Donahue said, Tuesday's result was a message from New Hampshire voters that they want to see a competitive Democratic nomination fight play out a while longer.
"It's not a mandate for Clinton, it's not a rejection of Obama," Donahue said. "It's a loud and clear message: Bring it further, keep it going."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.