Kerry coasted to his second straight win, building on last week's victory in the Iowa caucuses with a solid triumph in the New Hampshire primary over one-time front-runner Howard Dean.
Dean, the former Vermont governor who lost his front-runner status and, to some extent, his political stature nine days ago, made something of a comeback Tuesday, but he was far enough behind the senator from Massachusetts to raise fresh doubts about his candidacy.
The big Kerry win in the nation's first primary means that this is now his nomination to lose, leaving Dean and everyone else with a difficult struggle in the seven primaries and caucuses next week.
Kerry won in virtually every age and demographic group, as voters sought the candidate they thought was most likely to beat President Bush in the fall.
"The war defined this race for 13 months, but it didn't define the last seven days," said Rich Killion, pollster at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H.
Electability did, and that badly wounded not only Dean, who built his campaign on his anger over the war, but also North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who picked up support in the closing days but hardly enough to repeat his runner-up showing in Iowa, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran poorly in his first political contest.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran a distant fifth even though the independents that he coveted accounted for 40 percent of the vote, faces a win-or-else situation next Tuesday.
The shape of the Democratic race is now clear: A smashing Kerry win next week in a majority of the next seven states could bring an inevitability to his nomination. First, though, he has to contend with his rivals' attempts to cherry-pick states where they think they can topple him.
Feb. 3 could be the last battle for Lieberman, who finished fifth despite having moved into New Hampshire five weeks ago, and for Clark, who went from nearly being the front-runner here to finishing far behind.
Edwards may be the best positioned of the three at the bottom of the pack, but he also faces trouble. He surged in Iowa, winning a stunning 32 percent of the vote, but generated little momentum from his showing. Instead, he found that while he attracted energetic crowds in New Hampshire, he could not get past voters' concerns that he does not have enough experience for the job.
The New Hampshire primary reiterated what Democratic voters said last week in Iowa: They do not see huge differences among the candidates.
What separates them is electability.
"It mattered more than ever before," Killion said.
According to exit polls, one of every five voters said Kerry's ability to beat Bush in November was what they sought most in a candidate - and the senator was their overwhelming choice.
The partisan divide that has been obvious in American politics for years was apparent again. Democratic voters Tuesday were clearly disenchanted with Bush. Nearly 40 percent said their family's financial situation had deteriorated in the last four years, and half the electorate said they were angry at Bush.
It was common to find people still making up their minds Tuesday, and exit polls found that half of the voters said they decided on their candidate only in the last week - after Kerry's surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses. Kerry won half of the late deciders, with Dean and Edwards also getting some support.
Also driving the vote - though only marginally in Dean's favor - were strong feelings against the war. Forty percent said they "strongly disapprove."
Instead of those sentiments opening a wide door for Dean, whose opposition to the war made him a viable candidate last year, in some instances it benefited Kerry, the military hero whom voters in interviews often saw as having presidential gravitas.
Kerry stressed that theme as he addressed jubilant supporters at a downtown Manchester hotel.
"George Bush has run the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country," Kerry said.
Let them run on national security, the Vietnam veteran said. "I know something about aircraft carriers for real," Kerry told the cheering throng. "And if George W. Bush wants to make national security the central issue in this campaign, I have three words for him I know he understands: Bring it on."
Dean, who has been campaigning here for nearly two years, did well among voters who wanted to shake up Washington, and the Dean campaign still has the money and the organization to wage a national campaign.
He termed his Tuesday showing "a solid second," and said he would "play to win in every single state," but like all of Kerry's rivals, he has to quickly show that he can win and collect delegates.
The elimination tournament begins in earnest today. Instead of being clustered in a 50-mile radius around Manchester, candidates head all over America for both symbolic and political reasons.
Kerry will fly to St. Louis, the urban heart of the state with the biggest Feb. 3 prize - 74 delegates.
Lieberman had planned to go to Delaware today to meet with voters in Wilmington, but bad weather forced him to reroute his flight to Oklahoma City. He plans to go to Delaware, a state he believes he has a good chance to win, later this week.
Edwards will head to South Carolina, the state he has to win to survive, but he also plans to visit Missouri soon. Clark will go west to Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, with their large populations of active and retired military personnel.
Dean goes home to Burlington, Vt. - to rest for a day - before traveling to South Carolina Thursday for the candidates' debate, followed by a major nationwide swing.
The Feb. 3 winner will be decided by two yardsticks: delegates and states won. Iowa has 45 pledged delegates; New Hampshire 22. The Feb. 3 states have a total of 269, and a week from now, the talk is going to be about who's inching closest to the 2,162 needed for nomination.
The candidates also have to show they can win, not just do well.
"Everyone has to win something that night," said Lieberman campaign director Craig Smith, a feeling echoed by other campaigns.
The betting is that Kerry will have enough momentum to be the favorite, at least until Thursday's debate. American Research Group President Dick Bennett, who polls in several of the Feb. 3 states, noted that Dean led in many of them until he was toppled from his front-runner perch.
Now Kerry is moving up, even though he had little advertising or organization. But, Bennett said, "Look at what's happened over the weekend in South Carolina and Arizona." Kerry, Bennett said, is perceived as the probable nominee, and Democrats want a winner so they're rallying around him.
Kerry's challenge is to show that he's a national candidate who can run strong in places as diverse as Arizona, South Carolina and Delaware. His campaign believes the "Massachusetts liberal" tag he's bound to hear endlessly this week won't play.
"People liked John Kennedy. They didn't say in 1960 that he was a Massachusetts liberal," said national Kerry chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen.
On paper, the most serious challenge to Kerry could come from Edwards, who plans to visit Oklahoma and Missouri today, both states with some kinship to the South.
Edwards is expected to adopt the kind of strategy that Kerry's rivals will follow: Pick a state or two where they can do well, hunker down there beginning Friday, and try to win it.
Edwards insisted that he had done what he wanted to do in New Hampshire.
"Just a week or 10 days ago, we were in mid-single digits here," he told reporters Tuesday night, "and we're clearly moving up."
And he reminded everyone, "There were three New England candidates running who were very well-known."
Edwards will zero in on South Carolina, Oklahoma and Missouri, believing victories or close seconds will make him viable for the Feb. 10 round that includes Tennessee and Virginia.
A loss in South Carolina, though, where he was born, could be lethal. "Edwards has always been strong here," said Columbia, S.C., consultant Tige Watts. "But Clark is pretty strong, too; being a Southerner helps him."
Clark is betting his candidacy not only on South Carolina, but also Oklahoma, where he leads in the latest ARG poll, and Arizona. Huge chunks of voters in all three states remain undecided.
Only now will they start to pay intense attention. Oklahoma and Arizona, for instance, are states that have never had so much primary season attention, and no one can reliably say what will play there.
That's why, Bennett said, Clark leads Oklahoma "by default," because of name recognition. In Arizona, said Phoenix-based pollster Earl de Berge, the undecideds are growing as they start to pay attention. "The number jumped to 50 percent after Iowa," he said.
Lieberman is counting on Arizona as one of the states he can break through. He's due to campaign there later this week, believing his "American Dream" message will play well with the Latino community.
The sizable numbers of minority voters add another uncertainty to this new mix. New Hampshire has an almost invisible minority voting population, but an estimated 40 percent of South Carolina Democratic voters are black, and as much as 30 percent of the Democratic vote in Arizona and New Mexico could be Latino.
In South Carolina, the Rev. Al Sharpton, barely a blip in the New Hampshire and Iowa results, is running third with 15 percent in the ARG poll.
Dean is left with no natural constituency in any of next week's seven states, which is why a strong New Hampshire showing was crucial to his chances. He's looking further than Feb. 3 and plans to spend part of this week in states voting later in February, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Washington.
"The only way he could win in the South was to dominate Iowa and New Hampshire," said Larry Harris, principal at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "The idea that he was the inevitable nominee was his only hope there."