NEWS

Rick Holmes: Predicting New Hampshire

Rick Holmes

Will New Hampshire vote for change or experience? For old standbys or new faces? For management or leadership? Let me go slightly out on a limb or two.

First, the Republicans.

John McCain isn't the same candidate who ran eight years ago. Then, he geared his appeal to independents, now he stresses Republican orthodoxy. He won big in New Hampshire in 2000 because he was seen as authentic and as a fresh face. Now, he's stressing foreign policy expertise, repeating how he has been intimately involved in every national security debate in the last 100 years.

Mike Huckabee comes across as the most authentic Republican in the race this time around, with the freshest face. Yes, he's a former Baptist preacher, but you wouldn't know it from the stump speech I heard in Windham, N.H., Sunday. He was warm, humble, funny, as passionate about his working-class background as John Edwards is - Huckabee was the first male in his family to even finish high school. He's as optimistic as Barack Obama and shows no interest in fighting the culture wars.

Mitt Romney catches it from both sides. Don't choose a manager, McCain says, vote for a leader with honor and integrity. Huckabee's best line - "I want to be the candidate who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy that laid you off"- is a not-so-subtle reminder that Romney made his fortune as a corporate down-sizer.

McCain's experience pitch just emphasizes his age - and it didn't help that his major celebrity endorser on the trail last week was Wilfred Brimley. If the voters were mainly looking for foreign policy experience, Joe Biden would still be running. Still, McCain is more likable than Romney, and I expect he'll come out on top, but the independents he seduced in 2000 will mostly go to Obama.

New Hampshire hasn't seen enough of Huckabee to score an upset, but I'm guessing he'll exceed expectations - and will come up big in South Carolina.

On the Democratic side, 2008 is reminding me of 1968. We're mired in an unpopular war and worried about the economy. We're divided over politics, religion and culture. Strong majorities tell pollsters we're on the wrong track.

In this analogy, Hillary Clinton is Hubert Humphrey, the candidate of the party establishment. Among Democrats, Humphrey was respected, but not loved. He had a great liberal record, but he had been slow to criticize the Vietnam War. To young people, he seemed out of style.

Barack Obama is Bobby Kennedy. He's got youth, charisma and style. He draws big crowds and brings new people into politics, especially the young. He gives his followers hope for the future. He doesn't play the race card, but when he talks about bringing together the red and the blue, his audience knows he's also bringing together black and white.

John Edwards imperfectly fills the role of Gene McCarthy, a candidate who said the right things on the issues but was out-charisma-ed by RFK. Edwards' anger toward the Washington and corporate establishment has an appeal, but Ronald Reagan proved that in most American elections, optimism beats anger.

George W. Bush, who was a blank-slate president surrounded by long-resume advisers, managed to discredit both experience and inexperience. For Clinton, like McCain, harping on experience - 35 years of it, she keeps saying - just makes her seem older.

It won't be unanimous, but this year, as in 1968 (but for an assassin's bullet), young will beat old, new voter enthusiasm will beat the old-politics machine.

The race will continue until Feb. 5 - and maybe longer on the GOP side. But I'm picking Obama to win New Hampshire, and it won't be close.

Rick Holmes is opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News and blogs at Holmes & Co (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at holmes@cnc.com.