MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. Hillary Clinton won a narrow victory over Sen. Barack Obama in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, spurring a state with a large proportion of independent voters to the polls in record numbers. The win put a damper on the Obama campaign, which, polls on Monday had suggested, was en route to victory.
The Clinton comeback, unavoidably compared to her husband's performance in the state in 1992, offers new momentum for the New York senator as the nominating contest heads to South Carolina.
Republican Sen. John McCain, whose blunt style and reputation for independence resonates well in the Granite State, clobbered the rest of the GOP field, including Mitt Romney, the former governor of nearby Massachusetts.
"We sure showed them what a comeback looks like," McCain told his gleeful supporters as they chanted, "Mac is back!"
"We are the makers of history, not its victims," he said. For the GOP, it's the second consecutive victory for candidates who just weeks ago were running far back in the pack of contenders in national polls.
Democrat John Edwards finished third with 17 percent, while Iowa's GOP victor Mike Huckabee finished with 12 percent in third place. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani finished a distant fourth, with 9 percent, in a state he had virtually abandoned to his Republican rivals.
It was a record turnout for the primaries, and election officials took the precaution of sending extra ballots to certain polling stations as the day wore on and the ballot boxes filled up. An estimated 60 percent of the 800,000-plus registered voters cast ballots, more than 500,000 in all. There were many younger voters, but many elderly voters as well, who seemed to carry Clinton to victory. The turnout vastly outdoes the last record showing in 2000, when 396,385 votes were cast. Voting in several places was extended as crowds queued around buildings, waiting in banks of dirty melting snow, to have their chance to vote.
Barbara Mulroy, 69, has lived in Manchester her entire life, but she'd never voted for president.
"I thought it was about time, before I die, to get my two cents in," she said, moments after casting her vote for Hillary Clinton. "I voted, so now I can complain, right?" The economy was a high priority for her and many others, as well as the price of heating oil and food.
Women dominated Democratic voters, while more men voted for a GOP candidate. Polls also showed that Democrats were pleased with their choice of candidates: Eight in 10 strongly favor their candidate, compared with two thirds of Republican primary voters.
Riding a surge of support from his Iowa win, Obama kept the tone of his campaign upbeat and largely positive.
"You can afford to be nice, you can afford to be courteous, you can afford to reach out to people who might not always agree with you," he told a crowd at a high school in Manchester on the eve of the vote, when polls showed him with a lead over Clinton. "There are disaffected Republicans and independents out there who also want to get on the change agenda." But not enough voters supported him over the next 24 hours.
Clinton, meanwhile, went on the offensive, harping on Obama's lack of experience by describing her own. In rallies that were less focused on broad rhetorical themes like hope, she was heavy on specifics of her healthcare and college funding plans. She frequently told voters, as the primary approached, that she was best prepared to be the commander in chief "from Day 1." Just hours before the polls opened, at a rally in Dover, she invoked the 2006 terrorist attacks in London, which occurred just days after the selection of Gordon Brown as prime minister. It was, she said, "no coincidence" that al Qaeda had sought to test a new leader. Voters, like utility technician Edward Marshall Jr., 52, concurred, finding Obama's shor tenure in the Senate insufficient experience to be president. "I liked him, but I can't vote for him yet," said Marshall.
Overall, New Hampshire voters were receptive to Obama's campaign. "His message was simple: hope and change," said Jennifer Gordon, 31, an administrative assistant, who cast her vote for him though she'd been leaning toward Clinton until several weeks ago. "After he won Iowa, it showed he could win in November, so I felt it was OK to vote for him," she said.
McCain, too, touted his record of compromise, particularly with independent Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
"I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed to tell you that I will reach across the aisle," McCain told voters on the steps of the town hall in Exeter on Monday night. "He's a guy I can trust--and integrity does count," said Marsha Cole, 39, the owner of a small business outside Nashua, who cast her vote for the Arizona senator. "Now that his support of the Iraq [war] isn't hurting his campaign, I hope he can keep going."
The fiercest sparring erupted between McCain and Romney in debates and campaign spots. But there, too, the GOP contest was largely genial. The candidates seemed to realize that New Englanders were in no mood for the divisive slugfest that has marked previous contests. On the day of the vote, Huckabee, the former minister known for his humor on the campaign trail, ran into Giuliani at a church polling station and jokingly asked the former mayor for his vote. Both candidates are looking to score big in later contests and had largely let Romney and McCain fight it out for the state's delegates. To be sure, the former New York mayor had boarded a plane to Florida before the votes were even tallied.
But the Granite State primaries may well mark the end of the rhetorical pleasantness.
Obama, Giuliani, and Romney, in particular, will be fighting for their political lives in the coming handful of primaries held before 19 states cast their votes on Super Tuesday on February 5. "The gloves are coming off in both the Clinton and Obama campaigns," says one Democratic strategist who refused to allow his name to be used.
For those candidates who will contest South Carolina and Nevada, the trip south will give them all time to consider the fact that no one, since the current primary system was established in 1972, has finished lower than second in Iowa and New Hampshire and won his party's nomination. And the only candidate able to win the presidency after losing both early states was Bill Clinton in 1992.
As campaign signs and placards were cleared from the highway medians, overpasses, and telephone poles, staffers and candidates were reminded that the result was yet another lesson in the unpredictability of the electorate. "No one knows what's going to take primary importance in the people's minds--Iraq, the economy, values issues--they are all up for grabs, and some people decide at the last minute," said Robert Kraynak, a professor of political science at Colgate University. Indeed, exit polls also showed that half the voters in both contests made up their minds in the past week, and some 17 percent decided on the day of the vote. Javier Rodriguez, 41, who recently moved from Massachusetts to Manchester, is an independent voter who religiously reads about politics on the Web. Yet he settled, rather unexpectedly, on Obama over a cup of coffee on Monday morning. "I liked all the Democrats and would be happy with any of them, but I saw a clip of him giving a speech and knew that he was the guy who needed my support." As the candidates head south, Obama, and the rest of the field from both parties, hope that more voters like Rodriguez will have similar epiphanies for them.
By Alex Kingsbury