Pat Buchanan, an angry populist riding a twin message of moral conservatism and economic protectionism, was barely leading Bob Dole Tuesday night in the closest New Hampshire presidential primary in 20 years.
With more than three-quarters of New Hampshire's polling places reporting, Buchanan had 27 percent of the vote, Dole had 26 percent and Lamar Alexander was close behind with 23 percent. Steve Forbes had 12 percent.
The other four Republican candidates were well behind. Richard Lugar had 6 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 who, according to some polls, almost half the nation's Republicans believe is too extreme to be elected president.
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 an unfilled hotel ballroom in Manchester as early returns showed Buchanan leading. Dole appeared at 10 p.m. to speak to them.
"It's not over yet, as far as I know," he said. "They're still counting. Now I know why they call this the Granite State _ because it's so hard to crack."
But he said the race would last several more weeks, through many more primaries. Referring indirectly to Buchanan, he said the choice in the race would be whether the Republican Party will be "a party of fear, or of hope."
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 contended.
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' national co-chairman, former Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, called the returns "a disappointment" but repeated Forbes' assertion that he would not drop out of the race. 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 delegate 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 Republican primary in New Hampshire since 1976, when Gerald Ford defeated Ronald Reagan by only 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.
Because New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary in the nation _ state law requires it _ 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 popular governor, Stephen Merrill. He had more than a 3-to-1 lead in the polls of autumn.
In early October, for example, a WMUR-TV/Dartmouth College poll put the race at Dole, 35 percent; Buchanan, 9 percent; and Forbes and Alexander tied at 7 percent.
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 began to build.
By late January, an American Research Group tracking poll showed Forbes with 29 percent; Dole with 24; and Buchanan and Alexander tied at 11.
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.
The Forbes commercials sneered at Dole as just "a Washington politician." They said Alexander "won't change Washington. He'll fit right in."
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.
Buchanan rose in New Hampshire after his earlier successes. He won a late January straw poll in Alaska, stunned Phil Gramm in Louisiana on Feb. 6, then came with three percentage points of Dole in Iowa six days later.
Times staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
N.H. primary results
X Buchanan 38,895 27%
Dole 37,209 26%
Alexander 32,591 23%
Forbes 17,554 12%
Lugar 7,906 6%
Keyes 3,771 3%
Taylor 2,068 1%
Gramm 537 0%
Dornan 336 0%
Others 1,427 1%
Percentage of precincts reporting: 78%
Source: Wire reports