WASHINGTON - Have a seat. This could take awhile.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is now his party's undisputed front-runner, with back-to-back victories in the opening tests of the '04 campaign. But the Democratic presidential race didn't end last night, and it could be some time in March before Kerry - or someone else - secures the nomination.
Winning neighboring New Hampshire by an impressive margin earns Kerry a finalist spot in his party's contest and makes him the man to beat.
"I love New Hampshire, and I love Iowa too," a beaming Kerry told cheering supporters as he claimed victory last night. "And I hope with your help to love a lot of other states in the days to come."
The Massachusetts Democrat's vote-getting appeal will now be tested in other parts of the country, as the race heads south and west for a big round of primaries and caucuses Tuesday. Because of his heavy focus on Iowa and New Hampshire over the past month, Kerry has devoted less time to those states than his rivals.
But riding the momentum of his early victories, Kerry will now be able to attract more money and build on his successes. Increasingly, the race will become a competition for delegates, with the chances of stopping Kerry depending, in part, on how many other candidates remain in the race, and for how long.
Kerry's rivals will have to pick their spots if they expect to slow him down, and next week's contests will provide an important gauge of the front-runner's strength.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the other next-door candidate in yesterday's primary, started climbing out of the post-Iowa hole he dug for himself. His partial rebound in New Hampshire's voting will help reinvigorate his campaign. But Dean's path to the nomination remains extremely steep.
Another contender who hopes to make the finals against Kerry - Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - ran well back yesterday and is looking to South Carolina and Oklahoma, both of which vote next week, to keep his candidacy alive. So is Wesley K. Clark, who edged out Edwards for third place.
Dean managed to recoup much of the New Hampshire support he lost in recent weeks, but voters in the rest of the country don't know him nearly so well. Polls show that negative impressions of Dean have shot up in the aftermath of his hyper-excited Iowa speech, which is about all that most Americans know about him.
Dean says he is running a 50-state campaign, but he has yet to win anything. He said last night that he didn't need to win any of the seven states that vote Tuesday to keep his candidacy going.
Dean's campaign was putting out the word that he would give quick once-over treatment to the Feb. 3 states, in an obvious effort to lower expectations. It may also reflect a calculated risk by his strategists that Kerry will be slowed by the same intense scrutiny, from the news media and his opponents, that hurt Dean when he was leading the pack.
Dean is saving money by not airing new TV ads in those states - while Kerry will be on in all seven. Dean will try to steal a victory in one of them - New Mexico, a caucus state, where organizational strength will be important and his labor support is strong.
But Dean is also attempting to leap over his weaknesses Tuesday by turning attention to Michigan, which votes Feb. 7, and where organized labor will play a major role, and to Wisconsin, which holds a Feb. 17 primary.
Dean "is coming back. The guy can take a punch," insisted Paul Maslin, his pollster. "This is going to be a two-man race." The Dean campaign said it had raised $1.5 million over the past week, a sizable haul.
If New Hampshire voters failed to guarantee the nomination to the winner, they played their traditional role: narrowing the field.
The clearest result of the first primary was to end any lingering doubt about Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, and his chances of winding up on top of the ticket this time. It won't be happening.
Lieberman's candidacy was propelled for months by meaningless national polls, which reflected little more than the fact that he started out as a better-known figure than his rivals. The first time he faced voters in 2004, he came up abysmally short. In spite of skipping Iowa and devoting vast amounts of personal campaign time - and campaign cash - to New Hampshire, he finished near the bottom.
Last night, Lieberman portrayed his apparent fifth-place finish as a virtual three-way tie for third.
"Today, the people of New Hampshire put me in the ring, and that's where we're going to stay," he said, signaling his intentions to make at least one last try in Tuesday's primaries.
But his failure to attract significant backing from independent voters undermined the main arguments of his campaign: that as a centrist Democrat he stood the best chance of attracting the swing voters who decide close presidential elections.
Clark also flopped in his debut as a candidate. His well-funded campaign, staffed with some of the brightest political minds from Bill Clinton's presidency, couldn't prevent the retired general from turning in a lackluster performance. In spite of having the state largely to himself, and Lieberman, for much of the month, his candidacy faded as the primary neared.
Clark, who claims Arkansas as his home, now faces a tough fight in South Carolina against Edwards, who was born there and represents next-door North Carolina. The senator reaffirmed last night that he must win Tuesday in South Carolina to keep his campaign going.
By winning Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry joins two other Democrats in sweeping the first two presidential tests, both of whom went on to win the nomination: Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. The predictive value of that feat will be matched against Dean's success in raising more money last year than any other candidate, a guaranteed path to the nomination in every Democratic contest over the past 30 years.
"There's nothing about this race that has hewed to conventional rules, and I don't expect that [Kerry's back-to-back victories] will, either," said David Axelrod, an Edwards adviser, clearly hoping that there will be a third way to the nomination this year.
Next Tuesday: 269 delegates will be at stake when seven states will hold primaries.