McCain Stuns Bush in N.H. Primary
Gore Holds Off a Charge by Bradley
By Dan Balz
In the Democratic primary, Vice President Gore defeated former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley with about half the vote counted, handing Bradley two losses in the first two events of the 2000 nominating process.
The close contest in the Democratic race foreshadows five tough weeks of campaigning between Gore and Bradley as they head toward a decisive round of primaries on March 7, which includes votes in California, New York and Ohio.
The Democrats now face a potentially bitter split between the two candidates the longer the race continues, and early tonight Bradley challenged Gore to weekly debates that could intensify the personal attacks that filled the final days here.
In the Democratic primary, Gore had 53 percent of the vote with half the precincts counted, while Bradley had 46 percent.
McCain had 49 percent of the vote to Bush's 31 percent. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, whose strategy of using a second-place finish in Iowa to snap his candidacy to life here failed, ran a distant third. Alan Keyes, who made the issue of America's moral decline the centerpiece of his campaign, was fourth, while Gary Bauer, the former president of the Family Research Council, was last.
McCain's victory sets up the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary as a major test of strength for the Arizona senator and also now for the Texas governor, whose huge war chest and establishment support failed to impress a GOP electorate that has often given front-runners their comeuppance.
Bush maintains a sizable advantage in resources and organization, but the strength of McCain's victory here could make coming contests far more competitive than Bush's campaign anticipated, while rattling some party leaders who counted on the Texas governor to cruise to the nomination.
McCain, however, must demonstrate that his is more than a one-state campaign and that he can attract votes in states with electorates that are more conservative and far less dominated by independent voters with his reform message, which often cuts against traditional GOP appeals.
McCain's huge victory validated the strategic gamble made by the Arizona senator, who skipped the Iowa caucuses to concentrate his time and resources here and in South Carolina and who will head South with a swell of new energy.
Bush's lackluster performance represented one of the worst defeats suffered by a Republican front-runner in the modern history of the New Hampshire primary, and the outcome puts Bush under pressure to refocus his campaign and sharpen his message as he moves to the next series of contests.
Bush put far less time into the state than McCain, and his decision to skip two early debates hurt him. In the final days, he rolled out a series of endorsements and even brought his parents in for a weekend appearance. But his campaign from the beginning lacked the personal energy of McCain's.
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war with a compelling biography, covered more than 15,000 miles aboard his chartered campaign bus and conducted 114 town meetings with the voters of New Hampshire during 79 days of campaigning here.
In the final days, his campaign surged with energy and enthusiasm as he drove home a message built around a pledge to purge Washington of the power of special interests and reduce the influence of money in politics.
That intensity of effort paid huge dividends today, as McCain swept virtually every category of voters, according to exit polls conducted by Voter News Service. He won among men and women, among young and old, among high school graduates and college graduates.
But it was a wave of independents, who are allowed to vote in either primary here, that gave McCain a victory far bigger than anyone had predicted. According to the exit polls, about a third of Republican voters were registered independents, a notable increase over four years ago. Those independents went for McCain 3-1.
Bush, the candidate of the party establishment whose campaign was led here by Sen. Judd Gregg, hoped to offset McCain's support among independents with strong support among regular Republicans. But the exit polls suggest that that strategy failed, with McCain maintaining a small lead among registered Republicans.
Bush also miscalculated his ability to win among conservative voters, who account for roughly half the Republican electorate. He and McCain were splitting that vote late today, while McCain was winning moderates by about 2-1.
The principal substantive fight between Bush and McCain here was over taxes, an issue that has often played a crucial role in GOP primaries here. Bush advocated a big tax cut modeled after past Republican tax packages. McCain countered with a smaller tax cut and a pledge to put some of the projected budget surplus into Social Security and into paying down the national debt.
Exit polls show that voters were evenly divided on the merits of the two approaches. Among those who preferred a big tax cut, Bush won narrowly, but among those who preferred McCain's emphasis on saving Social Security, the Arizona senator's margin was roughly 3-1.
About one in six voters said taxes were the main issue determining their vote, and among that group, Forbes was the top choice.
Until today, Bush was overwhelmingly seen here and nationally as the GOP candidate who could win in November, and the Texas governor attempted to make that message part of his appeal to voters. But among those who turned out in the Republican primary, McCain and Bush were judged almost evenly electable in November, a blow to the aura of inevitability that Bush advisers have tried to engender about their candidate.
The Democratic primary offered Bradley the chance for an early upset against a sitting vice president, and it was his surge in the polls in late summer that initially reshaped the Democratic nomination fight.
Bradley's early success here caused Gore to retool his campaign style, as he shed some of the trappings of the vice presidency and began more intensive, personal campaigning, which voters here demand. Gore also launched his first attacks on Bradley's health care plan during a fall debate at Dartmouth College.
As in the Republican contest, registered independents played a significant role in the Democratic primary, accounting for almost a third of the Democratic electorate. Bradley had a large lead among those independents, while Gore had a solid lead among registered Democrats.
Gore received a strong boost from New Hampshire's surging economy. About a quarter of Democratic voters rated the economy as excellent, and Gore was carrying them decisively.
Gore's ties to President Clinton also appeared to pay dividends, although there were some voters here clearly affected by what has become known as Clinton fatigue. More than four in five Democratic voters said they approved of Clinton's job performance, and they gave Gore a majority of their votes. But when asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable impression of Clinton personally, more than half said unfavorable, and they broke heavily for Bradley.
After Gore's big win in Iowa a week ago, polls here showed Gore widening his lead over Bradley. Eager to reverse his slide, Bradley struck at Gore in their debate last Wednesday, accusing the vice president of running a dishonest campaign. He followed that with further attacks into the weekend, and with polls in conflict over the direction of the race, his advisers clung to the hope that he could eke out a narrow victory tonight.
Overall, voters here said they were pleased with the candidates in both races and contented with the state of the nation. About nine in 10 voters here rated the economy good or excellent. Overwhelming majorities in both parties said they were pleased with their choice of candidates and that they would not consider voting for the nominee of the Reform Party in November.
Staff writer Ben White, polling director Richard Morin and assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
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