MERRIMACK, N.H. — John Edwards said his finish in Tuesday’s New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary showed he is the candidate who was consistently improving each week.
Early returns showing Edwards finishing with a percentage of the vote in the teens was a vast improvement over his single-digit standing in the polls immediately after he came in second in Iowa, he said.
“It’s important for me to show I can move up,” Edwards said.
The North Carolina senator was in a tight race with retired Gen. Wesley Clark for a distant third place, well behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s first place and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s second.
Edwards, despite spending a good part of the past year campaigning in New Hampshire and holding more than 100 town hall meetings, could not overcome the built-in advantages of the New Englanders.
“They’re from right next door,” Edwards said of Kerry and Dean. “They’re expected to do that.”
Basic issues resonate
Exit polls showed Edwards was most competitive among those who thought health care, education and the economy were the top issues — getting almost one in five among those voter groups.
E Video: Clark, Edwards in S.C. dwards declared himself the positive, optimistic candidate, but he split the vote among voters who thought having a positive message was the most important candidate quality. He was relatively strong among those who most wanted a candidate who cares about people like them but slightly behind Kerry and Dean with that group.
The exit polls were conducted for The Associated Press, NBC News and other television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
His tight race with Clark could portend another close contest next week when the campaign turns to seven races on Feb. 3, including South Carolina, considered all important to Edwards’ chances.
Battling for the South
Edwards wants to make his stand on his home turf. He was born in South Carolina and represents next-door North Carolina. But Clark also wants to claim the mantle as the candidate of the South.
The Edwards campaign is focused on South Carolina but also wants to do well Feb. 3 at least in Oklahoma, and possibly New Mexico and Missouri. TV ads are airing in all three states, and Edwards said contributions continued to flow into his campaign based on his Iowa finish.
Edwards said he would be working hard in the coming week but would not forecast his prospects. “Beyond South Carolina I don’t want to make any predictions, but I want to do well,” he said.
When he finished speaking to supporters in New Hampshire, Edwards was scheduled to fly to South Carolina. He planned to spend part of Wednesday campaigning there, as well as in Oklahoma and Missouri, a big prize next week that became competitive after favorite son Rep. Dick Gephardt dropped out after the Iowa caucuses.
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