MANCHESTER, N.H. - Senator Hillary Clinton of New York scored a narrow but impressive comeback victory in New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary yesterday, as the Granite State again salvaged a troubled Clinton campaign and rejuvenated the former first lady's bid to return to the White House.
Senator John McCain of Arizona also repeated history, delivering an electric jolt in the Republican presidential contest, winning the state's GOP primary as he did eight years ago and imperiling the political prospects of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Drawing heavily on support from female voters as well as older ones, Clinton beat Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, 39 percent to 36 percent in a race that Clinton's campaign had appeared resigned to losing as late as yesterday afternoon. Her victory, just five days after a bruising loss to Obama in the Iowa caucuses, turned the contest into a fierce, two-candidate duel.
"I come tonight with a very, very full heart," Clinton told supporters after her win. "Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice. I felt like we all spoke from our hearts, and I am so gratified that you responded. Now together, let's give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me."
Some analysts and senior Clinton aides said that her emotional moment Monday - when she expressed to voters in Portsmouth why she wanted to be president - was a factor in winning last-minute support. Clinton beat Obama 47 percent to 34 percent among women, who made up a solid majority of the party's primary's voters, according to CNN exit polls. While Obama led heavily among those ages 18 to 26, young female voters broke for Clinton, said John Della Volpe, director of polling for Harvard's Institute of Politics, which conducted exit polling.
The proportion of young voters also rose dramatically. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement calculated that voters under the age of 30 made up 16 percent of the total, up from 14 percent in 2004 and 11 in 2000.
Obama, echoing his signature theme of hope even as he conceded the contest to Clinton, vowed to mount his own comeback. "For most of this campaign, we were far behind. We always knew our climb would be steep," he told supporters, leading them in chants of "Yes we can!"
"But in record numbers you came out and you spoke up for change, and with your voices and your votes, you made it clear that at this moment, in this election, there is something happening in America," he said.
Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina finished a distant third in the balloting.
Clinton's startling victory, coming on a day when record numbers of voters turned out on an unseasonably warm day, capped a seesaw Democratic race. She had been ahead by as many as 20 points months ago, but polls tightened in late fall, and Obama eventually opened up a wide lead in some polls after his win Thursday in Iowa.
Clinton campaign aides had been visibly dejected early yesterday, fearful that their candidate could lose by a humiliating, double-digit margin. But by early evening, her supporters began to feel more optimistic, buoyed by exit polls showing her running strong among women and by early returns showing her leading.
McCain's win means further upheaval in the Republican race as the campaigns head toward important showdowns later this month in Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida.
Romney, who owns a summer home in New Hampshire and who once held sizable leads in the state's polls, is now struggling to stay competitive in a volatile, multicandidate race. Last week, Romney finished second in Iowa's Republican caucuses to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
McCain led Romney, 37 percent to 32 percent, with more than 80 percent of precincts reporting last night. His victory constituted a remarkable return for the senator, whose presidential bid was deemed all but over last summer after massive spending and lackluster fund-raising left his campaign nearly broke. Hammered by conservatives for his advocacy of immigration reform and deserted by independents over his vocal support for the Iraq war, McCain was nonetheless able to claw his way back into the race.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," McCain told elated supporters last night, as cheers of "Mac is back!" punctuated his victory speech. "Tonight, we sure showed 'em what a comeback looks like."
Huckabee, coming off his big victory in Iowa, came in third, and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and US Representative Ron Paul of Texas were battling for fourth place.
Exit polling data offered some sense of who voted for the winners, and why. In the Republican race, voters appeared to base their choices more on character than on issues. Republican voters, according to a CNN exit poll, said that while they preferred Romney on the issues, they simply liked McCain better.
Romney's failure to win either Iowa or New Hampshire puts another dent in his presidential ambitions: His plan had long banked on more than a pair of second-place finishes in the first two states. Last night, he vowed in an upbeat speech to fight on.
"I want to make sure that the America that this family inherits and your family inherits is an America that remains strong and the hope of the earth," he told supporters.
McCain and Romney now head to Michigan, a newly pivotal state in this year's accelerated primary calendar where both men claim roots.
McCain won the state in 2000 and has a network of influential supporters there. Romney was born in Michigan, where his last name is political gold since his father, George, was a three-term governor. But a strong finish there won't come easy for Romney. Huckabee is running strong in the polls, running neck and neck with McCain, with Romney trailing.
Huckabee and former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee will now battle in South Carolina. Giuliani is looking to Florida to jump-start what he hopes will a late surge for his campaign, further fueled by victories in delegate-rich states on Feb. 5.
Despite his come-from-behind win here last night, McCain faces tough fights in the South and suffers from a dearth of cash that could imperil his prospects in the broad swath of contests Feb. 5. Huckabee, a Baptist minister still glowing from his win in the Iowa caucuses, appeals to evangelical Christians but is opposed by establishment GOP forces.
With 96 percent of the precincts reporting early today, 281,266 votes had been tallied in the Democratic race and 232,804 in the Republican one. That partial total of more than 514,000 was already well ahead of the previous record of 396,000 ballots cast in 2000, the last year with competitive races in both parties.
In the Democratic race, voters defied the pollsters and pundits to give Clinton her victory. Every poll conducted in New Hampshire in recent days had given Obama an edge, with the average advantage over Clinton reaching 8.3 percentage points yesterday, according to RealClearPolitics, an independent website that monitors polling.
Polling on the Republican side was much more accurate, giving McCain an average 3.6 percentage-point lead over Romney in advance of the voting.
In the end, Clinton found some salvation in New Hampshire, which had revived her husband's struggling 1992 campaign by giving him an unexpectedly strong second-place showing, to help her recover from the bruising Iowa loss and provide a springboard to South Carolina, Nevada, and the slew of big states on Feb. 5.
In the five days since Obama's Iowa win, his campaign had ignited, drawing huge crowds, heavy media coverage, and predictions of dominance.
By midday Monday, his rallies felt less like campaign events and more like celebrations, as thousands of ebullient supporters struggled to keep a lid on their excitement.
But Clinton fought back, arguing that her experience made her better positioned to bring about change.
Terry McAuliffe, national chairman of the Clinton campaign, told NBC last night that Clinton would continue her new strategy of openness with voters.