New Hampshire has rewritten a script that called for settling the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination contests by February 5 at the latest.
The state that on the eve of its first-in-the-nation primary was supposed to settle some things has stirred everything up. Instead of sending Illinois Senator Barack Obama on his way to the Democratic nomination or giving former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney a New England-neighbor boost on the way to the Republican nod, New Hampshire has declared the race for the presidency to be wide open.
Obama gave his planned "new American majority" speech on primary night. But he delivered it not as a victory speech; rather, it came in the context of a concession to Clinton, who prevailed by a narrow but for her absolutely redeeming 39-36 margin.
The Clinton win was the stunner of the night, upsetting pollster and pundit predictions -- and proving that getting a little choaked up, as the New York senator did on the eve of the primary, can do more than a thousand soft-focus TV ads to make voters rethink their impressions of her. The McCain win was anticipated by the pre-primary polls that failed so miserably when it came to predicting the Democratic race, but it has the same effect as Clinton's victory.
"There is not going to be any premature coronation," declared New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democratic contender who may not have won the contest but delivered the truest line of a roller-coaster night: "This race is going on and on and on."
To February 5 and perhaps beyond that day.
Of course, the candidates of both parties will follow a long campaign trail between now and then. They will compete in Nevada's January 19 caucuses, South Carolina's January 19 Republican and January 26 Democratic primaries, and probably in Florida's January 29 primaries.
Then they will go at it on February 5 in a score of states - including Clinton's New York, Obama's Illinois, Richardson's New Mexico, McCain's Arizona, Romney's Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee's Arkansas and Fred Thompson's Tennessee -- that will engage in the "tsunami Tuesday" voting that was supposed to settle both contests. But if this race that has not gone according to plan keeps producing unexpected and conflicting results, it is not unreasonable to imagine mixed February 5 results that could send the competition into states that were never supposed to matter: states like Wisconsin (February 19), Ohio and Vermont (March 4), Pennsylvania (April 22) and Oregon (May 20).
Whether the campaign gets to Ohio or Oregon remains to be seen, of course.
But one thing is certain: New Hampshire is over.
The exodus from the first primary state began almost as soon as the close Democratic contest was finally called for the woman who was not supposed to have a chance.
Clinton left in triumph, but also with a newly-populist message that acknowledged her determination to bid for the 25-percent of the vote that went to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishers John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich.
"We are in it for the long run," she declared.
But she is running now as a different kind of candidate. In thanking New Hampshire, she declared, "In the past week I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice."
That makes two candidates who have found their voices over the past week.
Obama, it should be noted, found his in Iowa.
He didn't lose it in New Hampshire. But he did lose - not just the vote but the expectations game.
So Barack Obama leaves New Hampshire having been the "Barack star" of the Democratic race but not quite as the "Barack star."
John Edwards is searching for a state where his brand of populism is popular.
John McCain wishes he could keep running in a state where independent voters have given him wins in both his presidential runs.
Mitt Romney is excited to be headed for states with closed primaries and caucuses where he can just concentrate on appeals to the conservative base.
Mike Huckabee is on the hunt for more evangelical voters.
Rudy Giuliani is looking for someplace to win.
Ron Paul is just having a great time, and continuing to confuse pundits and frighten insiders.
And they all might make it to the Badger state or the Green Mountain state or the Buckeye state.
That's a new notion. But this is a new race.
Two months ago, Clinton and Romney were the safe bets to win Iowa, New Hampshire and their respective nominations.
One month ago, Clinton and Romney were solid bets.
One week ago, Obama and Huckabee were looking like fair bets.
Today, all bets are off. And that means that, when you ask the candidates if they expect to be competing in the Wisconsin and Vermont Democratic and Republican presidential contests, they will say "you bet."
Indeed, making it to Madison and Burlington would be a triumph for any campaign. That's because Wisconsin and Vermont chose not to join the rush to "frontload" the primary process. As such, they offer the promise of a longer, more nuanced and more meaningful competition,
Most states moved their caucuses and primaries up to dates in January or early February to capture the spotlight in the first presidential contest since 1928 when neither the president nor vice president even toyed with the idea of making a bid for one of the party nomination.
It was always certain that 2008 was going to see competitive races for both party nominations.
It was never certain that the competition would play out in Ohio or Oregon.
But something has changed.
With the supposedly definitional Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries done:
On the Democratic side, there are now candidates - Obama and Clinton -- who can compete in all 50 states and potentially win the nomination, and a third - Edwards -- who can continue to compete in at least some of the states and to be ready to step in if another runner stumbles.
On the Republican side, there are now four candidates - Romney, McCain, Giuliani and Huckabee - who can spin a scenario that might take them to the nomination, and a fifth candidate - Ron Paul - who can continue to annoy the competitors with exceptionally well-financed rebel yell of a campaign.
Whether any or all of them will be competing in Pennsylvania or Ohio will be decided between now and February 5. But, after last night, there is every reason to believe that February 19, March 4 and even May 20 could be a definitional dates on the new 2008 campaign calendar.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.
© 2008 The Nation