By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 8 -- 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 governor 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 governor 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 W. 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.
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, asserting 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 half a 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 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 that the Iraq war, 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 95 percent of the votes counted, Giuliani was in fourth place. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose libertarian views were a good match for New Hampshire, was in fifth place. Former senator Fred D. Thompson (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.
After starting 2007 as the presumptive favorite, McCain saw his big-budget campaign fall apart under the weight of his support for the Iraq war and his sponsorship of an immigration overhaul with Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). Donors stopped giving. Most of his advisers quit. Pundits declared him finished.
But McCain never stopped campaigning in the Granite State. He borrowed money, trimmed his staff, pulled out of Iowa and traveled New Hampshire in a bus -- just as he did in 2000 to beat George W. Bush.
On Tuesday, McCain was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds as his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, arrived at polling locations. At the Ward 1 polling venue in Nashua -- in McCain's only public event today -- he was immediately overtaken by supporters.
Huckabee visited the Brookside Congregational Church in Manchester and a church voting precinct in Dover. Romney stopped by Bedford High School, the Associated Press reported, getting out of his car with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and trudging across packed snow to shake hands with voters and pose for pictures along the way.
Thompson, who had not campaigned much in New Hampshire and has trailed in the polls there, left the state even before voting began and headed to South Carolina to start an 11-day bus tour of the state.
The rest of the GOP candidates will gather in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Thursday for another debate.
In anticipation of the battle there, McCain advisers on Tuesday announced the formation of a "Truth Squad" composed of several senior elected officials in South Carolina to counter any attacks he may encounter in that state. McCain's 2000 New Hampshire win was quickly erased when backers of George W. Bush circulated rumors that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child and was possibly a traitor during the Vietnam War, during which he was held for five years as a prisoner of war.
"We saw what happened in Iowa with the negative attacks. We see what's happening in New Hampshire, and I can tell you for certain, we won't stand for it here in South Carolina," said South Carolina Adjutant Gen. Stanhope S. Spears, a McCain backer.
McCain emerged this year as the early favorite among the power brokers inside the Beltway, in part by spending years quietly courting President Bush's biggest donors and signing up the Karl Rove disciples who helped Bush defeat McCain eight year earlier.
After McCain's implosion, the establishment shifted for a while to Giuliani, who commanded what appeared to be a solid lead in national polls. But his support for abortion rights and stories of ethical problems in New York eroded his position in Iowa and New Hampshire, leading him to abandon both.
In his concession speech, Giuliani vowed to win future contests, starting in Florida. "Maybe we've lulled our opponents into a false sense of confidence now," he quipped.
Romney's strength in those early states throughout the summer, as well as his ability to raise money, helped him lift expectations among the Washington pundits. But questions about his Mormon faith and attacks about his tendency to change positions kept his national numbers down.
That opened an opportunity for Huckabee, whose victory in Iowa vaults him into a leading position. But the economic and foreign policy conservatives are wary of Huckabee, who has little international experience and whose populist message rivals that of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.).
Thompson and Paul have never been favorites of the establishment. But the failure of anyone else to emerge has kept them in the race.
Staff writer Lois Romano contributed to this report.