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Stunner in N.H.: Clinton defeats Obama

Sen. Hillary Clinton celebrates her victory in New Hampshire Tuesday night with cheering supporters.Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won New Hampshire's Democratic primary Tuesday night, pulling out a stunning victory over Sen. Barack Obama in a contest that she had been forecast to lose.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain also laid claim to this election cycle's title of "Comeback Kid" by defeating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and climbing back into contention for his party's presidential nomination.

Clinton has been the national front-runner, but tracking polls had shown Obama surging ahead in New Hampshire after his victory in the Iowa caucuses last week.

With 96 percent of the New Hampshire vote tabulated before counters shut down for the night, Clinton had 39 percent, Obama 36 percent and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina 17 percent. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson trailed with 5 percent and Rep. Dennis Kucinich had 1 percent.

"I come tonight with a very, very full heart, and I want especially to thank New Hampshire," Clinton told a jubliant crowd in Manchester. "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’m so glad that you responded. Now together let’s give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me."

‘What a comeback looks like’
Clinton's husband had used a second-place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 to propel himself to the White House in a performance that tagged him "The Comeback Kid," a title to which McCain also gave a nod Tuesday night.

"I’m past the age when I can claim the noun 'kid,' no matter what adjective precedes it, but tonight we sure showed 'em what a comeback looks like," McCain said in his victory speech.

"We celebrate one victory tonight and leave for Michigan to win another."

The boisterous crowd responded, "Mac is back, Mac is back."

With votes counted from 96 percent of the state's precincts, McCain had 37 percent, Romney 32 percent, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner in Iowa just last week, 11 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had 9 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul 8 percent and former Sen. Fred Thompson got 1 percent.

With his victory, McCain added seven delegates to his total. Romney got four and Huckabee one. Among Democrats, Clinton and Obama each got nine and Edwards four.  

‘Still all fired up’Among the challengers on both sides, there were congratulations for the winners and vows to fight on.

Serious but upbeat in speaking to his supporters, Obama pronounced himself "still all fired up."

"For most of this campaign we were far behind," he said. "We always knew that our climb would be steep."

He warned supporters of a long struggle ahead. "But always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change," he said.

Despite running a distant third to his better-funded rivals, Edwards said he has no plans to step aside. He pointed toward the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, hoping to prevail in the state where he was born — and where he claimed his only victory in the presidential primaries four years ago.

"Last week I congratulated Sen. Obama when he finished first and I finished second. One state down. Tonight I congratulated Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama. Two states down," he said. "Forty-eight states to go."

Resigned to setback — then a victoryObama had been poised for a New Hampshire victory to complement his victory in the Iowa caucuses. Even Clinton and her aides seemed resigned to a second setback.

There had been reports that Clinton's campaign would shake up its staff and was considering whether to effectively concede the next two contests, caucuses in Nevada and a primary in South Carolina, and instead try to regroup for a 22-state round of contests on Feb. 5. These plans could now be shelved, given her unexpected victory in New Hampshire.

Polling place interviews showed that the female vote — which deserted the former first lady when she finished third in last week's Iowa caucuses — returned to her in New Hampshire column. Women voted for Clinton over Obama by 13 percentage points.

She also won handily among registered Democrats. Obama led her among independents, but he suffered from a falloff in turnout among young voters compared with Iowa.

The grind took a toll on both of them.

Obama suffered from a sore throat, while Clinton's voice quavered at one point when asked how she coped with the rigors of the campaign. That unexpected moment of emotion became the talk of the final 24 hours of a campaign that was unlike any other in history.

Among voters who said that empathy was the most important candidate quality — about 16 percent of the vote — Obama got just 19 percent, down from 24 percent in Iowa. Clinton nearly doubled her vote among that group — 40 percent in New Hampshire versus 22 percent in Iowa.

Clinton did well with voters who said that experience was the most important candidate quality. She got 71 percent of that vote, up from 49 percent in Iowa.

Turnount in New Hampshire was a record. The count had passed the 450,000 mark even with ballots from 12 percent of the precincts still to be counted. Officials expected the final total to surpass 500,000, well ahead of the previous primary turnout record of 396,000 eight years ago.

Romney concedesAfter achieving early status last year as the front-runner, McCain had watched his lead disappear nationally and Giuliani and Romney pass him.

"When the pundits declared us finished, I told them I’m going to New Hampshire, where the voters don’t let you make their decision for them," McCain said Tuesday night.

The loss was a bitter blow for Romney, who spent millions of dollars of his own money in hopes of winning the kickoff Iowa caucuses and the first primary, only to finish second in both. Even so, the businessman-turned politician said he would meet McCain next week in the Michigan primary, and he cast himself as just what the country needed to fix Washington.

"People are frustrated, they are concerned about the leadership of our country," Romney said in conceding the race Tuesday night.

Still, he congratulated McCain "for running a first-class race. ... He did a good job and outcompeted us."

Huckabee played down his third-place finish in New Hampshire, saying his campaign would come out of the state "with continued momentum."

His campaign had been hoping for such a finish to stay alive as he heads into friendlier states.

"In Michigan, in South Carolina, in Florida ... what you helped us continue will be carried right on through, and it won't be long before we're going to be able to secure the nomination, and on to the White House and on to leading America," he said.