MANCHESTER, N.H. — Hillary Clinton stood alone in victory. No ghosts of presidencies past arrayed around her, as they were after her Iowa loss. Just a tough pro, in command, hard work for a close win, soaking up wave after wave of cheers from elated supporters gathered in a dingy college gym.
No tears tonight. But plenty of emotion.
"I come here tonight with a full heart," Clinton said. "Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice."
After her devastating third-place finish in last week's Iowa caucuses, it seemed that the fire that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama ignited in Iowa last week might burn through the firewall the Clinton camp had constructed here with the support of the state's Democratic establishment.
Obama's enthusiastic crowds and rhetorical majesty wowed the media; the polls found Obama rising as Clinton's double-digit lead turned into a double-digit deficit. The Clinton campaign seemed churlish at times — Bill Clinton railed at a voter who dared question the wisdom of Mark Penn, Clinton's lightning rod of a pollster. Things seemed so grim that one campaign aide joked that he'd spent the afternoon writing Clinton's obituary, and spinners stood ready to declare a five-point loss a moral victory.
The candidate herself, however, never wavered. Negative ads were taped but never aired; that was her call.
Instead, Clinton abandoned her stump speech for lengthy Q&A sessions with voters where she embraced her inner wonk and pointedly criticized Obama's record.
Once regarded as an ice queen, she took a risk by showing her emotions, first at a debate in questioning the accomplishments of Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and later at a voter forum where she nearly broke down while describing her fears and hopes for the country.
And so the firewall held, thanks mainly to the sisterhood that Clinton so aggressively wooed both here and in Iowa — and whose votes she won by double digits here. (She lost the women's vote in Iowa to Obama.)
"I just like what she believes in. I think she's a great person," enthused Silvia Umpierrez, 50, a bank teller from Manchester. "I don't know, I'm just wicked excited!"
So Clinton fights on, vowing, "This campaign will change America."
When she left, up blared Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wailing "American Girl" ("She was an American girl, raised on promises . . ."), kids and boomers danced in the back of the room and Iowa seemed a distant memory, with miles to go before anyone sleeps.