Checking out of the Econo Lodge in Manchester (which you must never, ever stay at or patronize) this morning, me and Peter Bagge joined an anxious group of journalists in the lobby: Phil Klein of the American Spectator, Chris Beam of Slate, David Corn and Ari Berman of The Nation. Klein, expecting a juicy "Fall of the House of Clinton" story, had attended the Hillary party, so thinly appointed with journos that seven of them had Terry McAuliffe to themselves. Everyone else had attended Obama, and a few other people in the lobby (wearing Obama stickers) struggled to even say the candidate's name.
This group of male journalists started slinging theories. All the Republican polls were dead-on: McCain comeback, Romney in second, Huckathird. But the Democratic polls were about 10 points off. Among the theories were the "Bradley effect" making white voters uneasy to vote for Barry Hussein Obama (I don't buy that), the omnipresent Obamania stories making independents think the Democratic race was over and they needed to bury Romney, pollsters missing the female Hillary vote.
"It was the debate," said a female voice. This male group of pundits looked over and saw Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Post. "The likeability question." She was talking about the moment in the debate when Charlie Gibson suggested Clinton had a likeability problem, Clinton parried ("That hurts my feelings!") and Obama leaned into the mic and said "You're likeable enough." The camera caught him the second he closed his mouth, looking down, unsmiling, writing notes.
The guys in the room sort of just stood there. I can't read their minds, but mine was swirling. You know, I'd noticed women at one of the debate-watching parties biting their lips when Obama said that. If Obama had said something like "Well, I like you" or if he'd just kept his mouth shut, Hillary's Monday tears wouldn't have had the same impact. "That set up the emotional moment," Sklar said.
So I'm pretty convinced now: That one-liner swung the primary. If I was a Republican strategist I'd be worried about Clinton for the first time. If she can turn Obama into Rick Lazio (or make him turn himself into Rick Lazio), imagine what she can do to a John McCain or Rudy Giuliani.