In an unexpectedly close race, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton edged Illinois Sen. Barack Obama Tuesday night in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation Democratic primary, giving her troubled campaign a much-needed boost after the former first lady’s stunning third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last week.
On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain climbed back into contention for his party’s presidential nomination, defeating both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.
With 77 percent of New Hampshire’s precincts reporting, Clinton had earned 83,568 votes, or 39 percent. Obama trailed with 76,953 votes, or 36 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, fresh off a second-place finish in Iowa, lagged behind with 17 percent, or 35,761 votes.
The close race between Clinton and Obama came as a surprise to media experts and political pundits, many of whom had predicted an Obama win by a sizeable margin.
As late as Tuesday morning, a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll showed that Obama had expanded his lead over Clinton by 13 percentage points. According to the poll, Obama led Clinton in all categories of voters except women and voters over the age of 65, and was pulling away from the New York senator among base Democratic voters. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The economy and the war in Iraq were the top issues in both party primaries, according to interviews with voters leaving their polling places after casting ballots in the most wide-open presidential race in at least a half-century.
But it became clear once the polls closed that Clinton was mounting an unexpectedly stiff challenge to Obama — with votes counted from 11 percent of the state’s precincts, she was running ahead of Obama, 38 percent to 36 percent, a lead she maintained as more and more precincts reported.
Clinton’s performance, based on the early returns, surprised even her own inner circle.
In the hours leading up to the closing of polls, her closest advisers had appeared to be bracing for a second defeat at the hands of Obama.
Officials said her aides were considering whether to effectively concede the next two contests — caucuses in Nevada on Jan. 19 and a South Carolina primary a week later — and instead try to regroup in time for a 22-state round of contests on Feb. 5.
These officials also said a campaign shake-up was in the works, with longtime Clinton confidante Maggie Williams poised to come aboard to help sharpen the former first lady’s message. Other personnel additions are expected, according to these officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing strategy.
On Tuesday evening, about 450 Clinton supporters and volunteers crowded into a hall with a big-screen television at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. Excitement — and even surprise — rippled through the gathering just after 9 p.m. when early results showed Clinton in the lead.
“We’re cautiously optimistic, but nobody is popping any champagne,” Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said.
“When we walked in, it was like going to a wake. I think people are shocked, because everyone here was expecting a loss,” said Bill Thompson, 60, who owns an insurance agency in Bedford, N.H. “If Hillary holds as these numbers come in, it’ll be seen as a real upset.”
Clinton led Obama among women who voted in the primary, 47 percent to 34 percent, according to exit poll data cited by MSNBC. She and Obama split the votes of those who decided within the last three days which candidate to support.
Thousands of Obama supporters were crowded into the Nashua High School gymnasium, anxiously awaiting results and cheering each time their candidate appeared on a large television in the front of the room.
“We expect a tight race,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
Preliminary results of a survey of voters as they left their polling places indicated that more independents cast ballots in the Democratic race than in the Republican contest. They accounted for four of every 10 Democratic votes and about a third of Republican ballots. The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks.
Republicans were split roughly evenly in naming the nation’s top issues: the economy, Iraq, illegal immigration and terrorism. Romney had a big lead among voters who named immigration, while McCain led on the other issues.
Half of Republicans said illegal immigrants should be deported, and this group leaned toward Romney. Those saying illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship leaned toward McCain, while the two candidates split voters saying that immigrants here illegally should be allowed to stay as temporary workers.
Among Democrats, about one-third each named the economy and Iraq as the top issues facing the country, followed by health care. Voters naming the economy were split about evenly between Obama and Clinton, while Obama had an advantage among those naming the other two issues. Clinton has made health care a signature issue for years.
About one-third said if Bill Clinton were running, they would have voted for him on Tuesday.
Obama hoped independent voters would come his way, as they did last week in Iowa, where he won the first test of the campaign. Edwards placed second and Clinton ran third in Iowa.
Obama drew huge crowds as he swept into New Hampshire and, as the frontrunner, drew plenty of criticism from Clinton and her husband. Asked if he expected more, Obama said, “Oh, I don’t think it will be just in the next few days. I think it’ll be, you know, until I’m the nominee or until I quit.” He said he understood their frustration.
Clinton, for her part, retooled her appeal to voters on the run. She lessened her emphasis on experience, seeking instead to raise questions about Obama’s ability to bring about the change he promised.
Win or lose, she said she was in the race to stay — never mind Edwards’ suggestion that the voters of Iowa had told her that her presence was no longer needed.
There was no letup in the television ad wars.
TNS Media Intelligence, a firm that tracks political advertising, said Clinton spent $5.4 million to reach New Hampshire voters, and Obama spent $5 million. The total for Edwards was $1.7 million, reflecting a smaller campaign treasure chest. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the fourth candidate in the race, could afford about $500,000.
As was the case in Iowa, Romney spent more than his rivals combined on television for the New Hampshire primary.
On the heels of his Iowa loss, Romney could ill afford another defeat after basing his campaign strategy on victories in one or both states. Reflecting the stakes, he clashed in weekend debates with Huckabee over the Iraq war and with McCain over immigration as he tried to right his campaign.
It was to no avail, as McCain was declared the winner early Tuesday night. With 76 percent of precincts reporting, McCain had garnered 65,420 votes, or 37 percent of the electorate, while Romney again placed second with 56,328 votes, or 32 percent.
Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses last week, placed third, receiving 19,769 votes, or 11 percent.
Material from The Associated Press and other wire services were used in this report.