MANCHESTER, N.H. – Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, the early Republican front-runner whose campaign imploded last summer, handily won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, dealing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney his second loss in the GOP nomination contest.
McCain’s victory amounts to a dramatic resurrection for the 71-year-old veteran of presidential politics and further scrambles a Republican race that now moves to Michigan and South Carolina. After New Hampshire, the fight for a new Republican standard-bearer remains a wide-open contest.
“My friends, I’m past the age when I can claim the name ‘kid,’ no matter what adjective precedes it,” McCain told an ecstatic crowd here. “But tonight, we sure showed ‘em what a comeback looks like. When the pundits declared us finished, I told ‘em, ‘I’m going to New Hampshire, where the voters don’t let you make their decision for them.’ “
The 2008 Republican contest has defied predictions from the beginning, featuring candidates who failed to appeal broadly to the conservative coalition that Ronald Reagan helped assemble three decades ago. Instead, the party continues to struggle as its candidates appeal to separate constituencies in the coalition’s diverse wings.
New Hampshire could propel McCain toward the Republican nomination, giving him the momentum he needs to win future contests. But he soon will face a stiff challenge in South Carolina from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose folksy charm and religious credentials have made him a potent force in the race. He will have to confront Romney’s family roots and personal wealth in Michigan, which votes next Tuesday. And former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, an American icon for many, is waiting in Florida for the battle to come to him.
The outcome of those upcoming contests could help to narrow the field. But Republicans in Washington and across the country fear that a protracted battle among social, economic and foreign policy conservatives – each with their own champions – could tie the party up while Democrats settle on a presidential nominee.
In New Hampshire, McCain won decisively among both registered Republicans and independents who voted in the GOP primary, an exit poll showed. But he lost among one key group: Voters who consider themselves conservative gave more votes to Romney.
That suggests McCain faces an uphill battle in states where the Republican electorate is more conservative than in New Hampshire.
“I don’t think this makes him the national leader” among Republican candidates, said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. “I don’t think there is a national leader. I think this keeps it completely wide open.”
For Romney, who has invested more than $20 million of his own money in his campaign, the second-place finish is devastating. His methodical campaign was built on the idea that victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would propel him to the nomination. But accusations that he is a flip-flopper dragged him down as he waged a multi-front campaign against both McCain and Huckabee.
Romney, who had led polls for months in New Hampshire, vowed Tuesday to continue his campaign, claiming that his twin second-place showings to two different candidates mean he is the only contender who is broadly competitive across the country. In a brief concession speech, Romney vowed to go “on to Michigan and South Carolina and Florida and Nevada and states after that,” adding: “I’ll fight to be back here in November, in those states and in others.”
McCain’s victory was aided by Huckabee’s defeat of Romney just five days earlier in Iowa. Huckabee came in third in New Hampshire behind Romney. State officials estimated that Tuesday’s record-breaking turnout exceeded a half-million voters.
McCain drew strong support from independents, despite predictions that many would vote for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the Democratic primary instead. About 37 percent of the people voting in the Republican primary identified themselves as independents, according to exit polls.
Romney led McCain by more than 3 to 1 among voters who said illegal immigration was their top issue, reflecting deep resentment among conservatives toward McCain’s support for providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But among Republican voters who said the Iraq war, the economy and terrorism were key, McCain was the clear winner.
McCain also got high marks from voters for being a leader. And more voters said they thought Romney had run the most unfair campaign.
With two-thirds of the votes counted, Giuliani was in fourth place. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, whose libertarian views were a good match for New Hampshire, was in fifth place. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was sixth, with just over 1 percent of the vote.
The Republican contest now moves quickly to Michigan, where voters will cast ballots next Tuesday, and to South Carolina, which holds the first primary in the South four days later. All six Republican candidates are expected to stay in the hunt for the nomination.