MANCHESTER, N.H. - John Kerry scored a substantial victory over a weakened Howard Dean in the nation's first presidential primary yesterday and left the other Democratic contenders scrambling to stay competitive in the still-fluid race for their party's nomination.
The victory solidified Kerry's position as the national Democratic front-runner. And it gave the Massachusetts senator, who claimed a surprisingly decisive victory last week in the Iowa caucuses, a big edge as the candidates head into a five-week flurry of contests in 27 states.
"Now, this campaign goes on to places all over this country, and I ask Democrats everywhere to join us so that we can defeat George W. Bush and the economy of privilege," Kerry told a jubilant crowd of supporters last night.
For Kerry, the result marked a remarkable resurgence in New Hampshire, where a few weeks ago the senator trailed Dean by double digits in most opinion polls.
The outcome also amounted to something of a rebound for Dean, whose candidacy seemed to be slipping away days ago after his dismal finish in Iowa. Still, it left the former Vermont governor in an uphill battle as the race shifts to states where Dean is less popular than he once was in the first two presidential states - and less well-known.
"The people of New Hampshire have allowed our campaign to regain its momentum, and I am very grateful," Dean said, struggling to quiet a roomful of screaming supporters. "We can change America, and we will."
The results failed to narrow the Democratic field, as some had predicted and as many party officials, eager to unite behind one candidate, had hoped it would.
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark edged out Sen. John Edwards for third place, with both men looking to coming contests in the South to strengthen their bids. Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman finished fifth and later rebuffed any suggestion that he might quit the race.
Clark, a political novice who hails from Little Rock, Ark., had painted himself as a fresh face with a sterling resume and centrist message that could position him as a formidable challenger for Bush. He took heart from his showing last night. But the retired general, whose inexperience showed at critical moments in New Hampshire as he struggled to explain some of his positions and made some impolitic remarks, has a tough battle ahead of him.
'Not slowing down'
"Never underestimate what a determined soldier can accomplish when he's fighting for his country," Clark told supporters last night. "We're heading South. We're heading West. And we're not slowing down until the last buzzer sounds. ... Today was just the first battle in our campaign to take America back."
Edwards, whose relentlessly upbeat message and winning smile seemed to melt some hearts around the Granite State, used his second-place finish in Iowa to try to build support here. He failed to achieve the surge that his campaign had hoped for in New Hampshire, but he is counting on more success in some of the crucial tests ahead, especially in his native South Carolina, where he leads in the polls and has said he must win.
"This momentum is extraordinary," Edwards exulted before his supporters. "We're going to take this energy and momentum we saw in Iowa, and this energy and momentum we saw in New Hampshire, and we're going to take it right through Feb. 3," when South Carolina and six other states hold contests.
Clark and Lieberman both skipped Iowa to focus their efforts here, but the Connecticut senator reaped little from his strategy. Having staked so much in New Hampshire, he will be hard-pressed to recover from his second-tier showing here and win enough support to compete effectively elsewhere in the country.
"Today, the people of New Hampshire put me in the ring, and that's where we're going to stay," Lieberman said.
The candidates were vying for New Hampshire's 22 convention delegates, but they were also seeking something much more significant: the bulk of the momentum that can flow from a victory in this state.
A record number of voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, more than 208,000, exceeding the previous record of 170,000 in 1992. The overall turnout was not a record because the Republican primary, won by Bush, was all but uncontested.
Some analysts attributed the high interest in the Democratic contest to the crowded field, which forced the candidates to refine their messages and fight tirelessly for votes - and to Democrats' unhappiness with the president.
Kerry, a four-term senator whose campaign was floundering here a few weeks ago, seized the momentum he gained from his striking Iowa victory and transformed his candidacy from a stiff and lackluster bid to an energetic comeback. He stressed his background as a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former prosecutor, painting himself as a fighter eager to take on Bush.
Relying on the support of veterans groups, an active firefighters union and prominent politicians - including fellow Massachusetts senator, Edward M. Kennedy and former Massachusetts Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire - his campaign organized a formidable voter outreach effort.
'Band of brothers'
"In the hardest moments of the past month, I depended on the same band of brothers that I depended on some 30 years ago" in Vietnam, the senator said. "We still know how to fight for our country."
Over the past week, Kerry worked to reverse the image that troubled him late last year in New Hampshire as a stuffy aristocrat out of touch with everyday problems. Now, as he takes his campaign to the rest of the country, Kerry will increasingly be forced to respond to Republican charges that he is another "Massachusetts liberal" whose views on social issues are too far to the left to appeal to most Americans.
Dean, who rose to prominence with his harsh and early attacks on Bush's decision to invade Iraq, softened his image in New Hampshire after giving a frenzied and much-ridiculed speech in Iowa after his poor finish there.
To convey a more soothing image, he began appearing in television interviews and at events with his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean - who had been virtually absent from the campaign trail - and toned down his defiant speeches to focus more on policy issues.
Bracing for what is shaping up as a bruising competition between the two men in the coming weeks, Kerry and Dean stepped up their sniping at each other yesterday as New Hampshire voters were casting their ballots.
"Unlike Howard Dean, I've fought in a war, and I know the responsibilities of commander in chief, of how you send young men and women off to war," Kerry said on NBC's Today show.
He was defending his voting record on U.S. military intervention in Iraq, which he opposed in 1991 but supported last year. Dean said those decisions showed poor judgment.
"He's going to have to stop whining when people start saying things about him that are different," Dean said of Kerry on CNN.
Field still crowded
The Democratic field remains crowded going into the next round of tests Feb. 3, when voters in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina go to the polls. Kerry's opponents are vowing to stay in the fight for those states, which together account for 269 delegates.
That is the kind of situation party officials had hoped to avoid when they structured the primary calendar to produce a nominee quickly and avoid a potentially divisive intraparty fight.
Dean has said he will compete vigorously Feb. 3, especially in Arizona and New Mexico, where the public sector union that has endorsed him is particularly strong. Still, without a victory under his belt as he heads into the next, costly stage of campaigning, Dean could start to see crucial contributions erode as would-be supporters wonder whether he can prevail.
Clark enjoyed a brief boost in the polls as he positioned himself as the perfect foil for Dean, as a Democrat with sterling military credentials and centrist policy stances who appealed to voters who were reminded of Bill Clinton, a fellow Arkansan and Rhodes scholar.
But Kerry's decisive victory in Iowa and his quick rise to the head of the pack in New Hampshire seemed to sap some of the momentum Clark had built up in the state.
The New Hampshire results and Democratic race at a glance
COMPILED BY PAUL WEST : SUN NATIONAL STAFF
Percentage -- 39%
Votes -- 82,594
What does it mean
Solid victory makes him the man to beat. Money and momentum will flow his way.
Competing in all seven states next Tuesday to prove he's a national cnadidate. But his remark that Democratics can beat Bush without winning in Dixie won't help his chances in South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Percentage -- 26%
Votes -- 56,353
What does it mean
He's not dead yet. His online donors will now be asked to dig deep and replenish his coffers.
Needs to win somewhere next Tuesday. Best bet may be New Mexico, where organization matters and his union allies have clout.
Percentage -- 12%
Votes -- 26,554
What does it mean
Maybe skipping Iowa wasn't such brilliant strategy after all. Intense focus on New Hampshire failed to produce desired results for novice candidate.
Showdowns with Edwards in South Carolina and Oklahoma could be make-or-break, if the retired general goes on. Campaign bucks will dry up without a win.
Percentage -- 12%
Votes -- 25,849
What does this mean
Failed to get hoped-for bounce in New Hampshire after second-place finish in Iowa. Still looking for his breakthrough state.
Winning his native South Carolina next week is a must. But a surprisingly strong showing in one of the others, such as Oklahoma, could mean even more.
Percentage -- 9%
Votes -- 18,392
What does this mean
Joe-mentum turned out to be No-mentum. Single-minded emphasis on the Granite State produced singularly unimpressive results.
Even winning Delaware looks to be out of the question now. But he's invested heavily in Oklahoma and Arizona, too, so he could go on for one more week.
Percentage -- 1%
Votes -- 3,015
What does this mean
Another state, another percentage point. But this is no longer about winning the nomination. It's about making a statement.
On to Feb 3rd states, and the Feb 7th state, and the Feb. 10th states, and ...
Percentage -- 0%
Votes -- 342
Whats does this mean
Skipped both opening delegate contests, in virtually all-white states. But now the calendar turns his way.
South Carolina, where African-Americans could cast up to 40 percent of the vote, should produce his first delegates. Has spent time in Delaware and will campaign in Missouri.
WITH 97% OF 301 PRECINCTS
Others : 1,247 Votes
All percentages rounded
SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS, SUN RESEARCH