New Hampshire voters turned out in record numbers for the January 27 Democratic primary.
(CNN) -- Affirming his status as the new front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Sen. John Kerry claimed victory in New Hampshire's hotly contested primary battle.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- who only two weeks ago was widely seen as the man to beat for his party's nomination -- described his second-place finish as a "strong second" and vowed his campaign would move forward.
The battle for third place was especially tight, with retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark slightly ahead of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. They were followed by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Despite months of campaigning by the top candidates, the battle for supremacy in New Hampshire's first in the nation Democratic presidential primary actually began in Iowa on January 19.
Kerry's come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses dramatically altered the political landscape, giving the Massachusetts Democrat momentum as the action shifted to New England, familiar turf for him and Dean.
Rep. Richard Gephardt dropped out of the race after his disappointing fourth-place showing in Iowa, and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun threw in the towel shortly before that state's contest.
Clark and Lieberman skipped the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire, but their expectations were likely altered by the results in Iowa.
Dean, once viewed as the man to beat for the nomination, suffered a serious self-inflicted wound with his highly charged speech to supporters following his third-place finish in Iowa.
"If you want to talk about potential defining moments, that might be one of them," CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield said. Dean's speech, delivered in a raspy shout, was widely ridiculed by late-night comedians. It even prompted a remix of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" featuring Dean's infamous screech.
Dean suffered a sharp drop in the polls in the wake of his performance in Iowa. In December, for example, one poll by the American Research Group had Dean at 45 percent, with Kerry only at 13 percent. But days before the primary, Kerry pulled ahead with some polls showing him in front of Dean by a 10-point margin or more.
Dean was forced to explain that speech during the first few days in New Hampshire after Iowa. He said he was giving his all to some enthusiastic supporters, but he later said it probably was "over the top." He tried to soften his image with a sit-down television interview with his rarely seen wife by his side, and he joked about his performance on David Letterman's late-night show.
Kerry meanwhile, played to charged-up crowds, buoyed by his impressive victory in Iowa. His campaign reported fund raising jumped this past week. And he struck a new note of confidence in his speeches to supporters.
"I have the experience," was a line he used time and again, touting his years in the Senate and his military service in Vietnam.
Edwards also got a boost out of Iowa with his strong second-place finish. He charged into New Hampshire with new enthusiasm, but the North was not as familiar territory for this son of the South. But Edwards insisted his Southern roots would serve him well in the long run.
"The South is not George Bush's backyard -- it's my backyard," Edwards said. "And I will beat George W. Bush in my backyard."
Clark, looking anew at Kerry, spent some of his times comparing his military credential with Kerry's.
"Well, he's got military background, but nobody in the race has got the kind of background I've got," the former supreme commander of NATO said the week before the primary. "I've negotiated peace agreements, I've made a major alliance in war."
Lieberman, meanwhile, struggled to gain traction in the state. He rented an apartment here with his wife, making a strategic decision to give New Hampshire his all. Despite his single-digit showing in several polls, he predicted he would prevail, declaring his performance in Thursday's debate his personal "best."
"I'm the toughest Democrat that the Republicans could run against," he told CNN on January 23.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and civil rights activist Al Sharpton rounded out the field.
Both men were trailing badly in fund raising and poll numbers.
New Hampshire long has a history of making or breaking candidates, breathing new life into struggling campaigns -- as it famously did with Bill Clinton in 1992 where he dubbed himself the "comeback kid" -- or ending them. Think of Ed Muskie, onetime U.S. senator from Maine whose 1972 presidential campaign faltered and never recovered after his emotional defense of his wife during a snow-swept news conference.
This year figures to be no different.