Pat Buchanan, an angry populist riding a twin message of moral conservatism and economic protectionism, barely edged past Bob Dole Tuesday in the closest New Hampshire presidential primary in 20 years.
With 97 percent of New Hampshire's polling places reporting, Buchanan led Dole 27 percent to 26 percent. Lamar Alexander was not far behind with 23 percent. Steve Forbes had 12 percent.
The other four Republican candidates were well behind. Richard Lugar had 5 percent, Alan Keyes 3 percent, Morry Taylor 2 percent and Bob Dornan 0 percent.
Instead of anointing Dole as the undisputed Republican challenger to President Clinton, as once seemed likely, the voters of New Hampshire sent a three-way choice to their fellow Republicans across the rest of the nation.
And although it was by a narrow margin, in Buchanan they were giving the nod to a man whom, according to some polls, almost half the nation's Republicans believe is too extreme to be elected president. New Hampshire has set up a nationwide battle for the soul of the Republican party.
Buchanan appeared before joyous supporters in Manchester just before 9:30 p.m. He led the crowd in a spontaneous rendition of God Bless America and thanked Nackey Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, who endorsed him last fall and has consistently backed him in front-page editorials.
He proclaimed victory for "the cause of a brand-new bold conservatism in American politics, a conservatism that gives voice to the voiceless, that speaks up for the right to life of the innocent unborn."
It is, Buchanan continued with rising voice, "a conservatism that looks out for the men and women of this country whose jobs have been sacrificed on the altars of trade deals done for the benefit of transnational corporations who have no loyalty to our country, and no loyalty to anybody." The crowd roared.
Dole's supporters waited uneasily in a hotel ballroom in Manchester as early returns showed Buchanan leading. Dole appeared at 10 p.m. to speak to them.
"Now I know why they call this the Granite State _ because it's so hard to crack," he said.
Dole told his supporters that the race would last several more weeks, through many more primaries. He has the most extensive national organization of any candidate. Referring indirectly to Buchanan, he said the choice in the race would be whether the Republican Party will be "the party of fear, or the party of hope."
"We've only begun to fight," he said.
Alexander, speaking to his supporters, complimented Buchanan and said he was delighted with a close third place. Dole is too weak to defeat Clinton and Buchanan is too extreme, and voters will turn to him as the best choice, he said.
Alexander said Dole, by weak showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, "has shown he does not have the ideas to base a campaign about the future. So the debate will be between my fresh, conservative ideas . . . and Pat Buchanan's ideas. I look forward to the contest."
Forbes, who said Buchanan's philosophy would be "a disaster for America," repeated his assertion that he will stay in the race. In fact, he said he had "come back off the ropes" from a disappointing showing in Iowa last week.
"We're going to do better in Delaware, and better in Arizona," he said, referring to two of the next primaries. While supporters waited for the candidate, comedian Joan Rivers entertained them on stage.
Lugar, despite his failure to break through in either Iowa or New Hampshire, also said he was staying in the race. "The American people ought to have several good choices," he told his supporters. "We think we're one of them."
On the Democratic side, Clinton had no serious opposition Tuesday and won his party's primary easily.
Candidates who won more than 10 percent of the vote will divide the state's 16 delegates to the Republican National Convention according to their percentage of the vote. So even Forbes might have won one or two delegates Tuesday. Delegates will be calculated today.
But the big prize at stake, as always in New Hampshire, was momentum and perception.
It was the closest GOP primary in New Hampshire since 1976, when Gerald Ford defeated Ronald Reagan by 1.4 percentage points.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner had predicted a turnout of 75 percent. Both Republicans and independents who declared themselves Republicans on Tuesday were eligible to vote.
As polls around the state began to close, starting at 7 p.m., hundreds of voters still stood in line in some polling places. Some sites ran out of Republican ballots and had to send out for more. The weather was not as bad as predicted and probably did not deter turnout, state officials said.
New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary in the nation _ state law requires it _ and it traditionally has been a make-or-break state in presidential races. (Iowa votes the previous week in party caucuses, not a primary.) Since 1952, only one candidate has failed to win his party's primary in New Hampshire and still been elected president: Bill Clinton, who finished second here in 1992.
Tuesday's election marked the end (a merciful end, many New Hampshire residents said) of a long, expensive and nasty contest for the Republican candidates.
Dole had once been the clear front-runner in the state. He had the support of the governor, Stephen Merrill. He had more than a 3-to-1 lead in the polls of autumn.
But then Forbes began a sharp rise at Dole's expense, largely by blanketing New Hampshire with commercials about a flat income tax and his message of "hope, growth and opportunity." Excitement and curiosity about Forbes grew.
Then Forbes' campaign made a key tactical decision that will be second-guessed by students of politics for years to come. He launched negative campaign ads in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Whether it was Forbes' harsh new tone, second-guessing of his flat tax, or voter resentment of the idea that he could buy success without grass-roots organization, he began to lose steam.
Forbes started falling like an anvil in the daily polls in New Hampshire after finishing a disappointing fourth in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 12 behind Dole, Buchanan and Alexander.
But Dole was wounded also. While his stump speeches stuck to the same, non-specific theme that he is a proven leader, Dole turned to negative commercials of his own.
Meanwhile, Buchanan and Alexander benefited from an "Iowa bounce" in the last week of the New Hampshire campaign. They seemed to pick up energy daily.
Times staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
N.H. primary results
X Buchanan 55,808 27%
Dole 53,376 26%
Alexander 46,489 23%
Forbes 24,957 12%
Lugar 10,521 5%
Keyes 5,545 3%
Taylor 2,873 1%
Gramm 740 0%
Dornan 509 0%
Others 2,349 1%
Percentage of precincts reporting: 97%
Source: Wire reports
Exit poll highlights
Many N.H. voters were dissatisfied with their choices Tuesday:
Said they wanted someone else in the race 41%
Would have voted for Colin Powell were he running 38%
Percent who think these candidates can beat President Clinton:
Different constituencies favored different candidates:
Age 18-64 Buchanan
Age 65 and over Dole
Protestant Dole, Alexander
Issues that mattered most to voters:
Economy, jobs 27%
Federal budget deficit 15%
Foreign trade 6%
Source: Knight-Ridder Tribune
Surging on anti-abortion, anti-free trade platform; yet many Republicans fear he is unelectable.
Pushing on, the Senate majority leader says: "We've only begun to fight."
Says third place proves he is best bet; calls for "contest of ideas."
Distant fourth, perhaps because of backlash against negative commercials.