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Inside Politics

Kerry claims New Hampshire primary

Dean in second place

Kerry celebrates his second consecutive victory.
Kerry celebrates his second consecutive victory.

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Watch CNN-USA's ongoing extensive coverage of the results of the New Hampshire presidential primary, to stay up to the minute on all the candidates' reactions and plans.
On the campaign trail: The latest Express Line dispatch 
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CNN's Judy Woodruff reports on Sen. John Kerry's convincing win in New Hampshire.
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CNN's Candy Crowley reports that for the second week in a row, Howard Dean finished behind Sen. John Kerry.
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Early exit polls show health care beats Iraq as the top issue in New Hampshire.
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A look ahead to the seven presidential primaries scheduled for February 3.
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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Democratic candidates
America Votes 2004
Presidential primaries
New Hampshire

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry claimed victory Tuesday night in New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary, reveling in his second consecutive and decisive win in his party's hotly contested nomination battle.

"I make this pledge to you tonight," a beaming Kerry told supporters. "I have spent my whole life fighting for what I think is right and against powerful special interests, and I have only just begun to fight."

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, the U.S. senator from neighboring Massachusetts was at 39 percent, followed by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean at 26 percent.

The first-place finish, with its solid margin, was a remarkable turnaround for Kerry, who trailed Dean by double digits in New Hampshire polls as recently as two weeks ago.

Coupled with his come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire win propelled Kerry to the front of the Democratic field, a status sure to be tested as the state contests widen next week.

The battle for third place in New Hampshire was especially tight, with retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina running about even. They were followed by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Trailing the pack were Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.

More contests ahead

Kerry was scheduled to travel Wednesday to St. Louis, Missouri, whose primary is the biggest prize in a series of contests in the West and South next week that figure to test the geographic appeal of each of the candidates. ('s interactive Election Calendar)

The other leading candidates vowed to press on, each citing signs of momentum and support in the New Hampshire results.

Dean -- who only two weeks ago was widely seen as the man to beat for his party's nomination -- described his finish as a "strong second" in an interview with CNN.

In a later speech to supporters, he talked of challenging Bush in the fall.

"We can take back America and stand up for working families and middle-class families again, and take our government back for the people who built it instead of corporations and special interests -- and we will," Dean told supporters.

His comments were far more subdued than his fiery speech to supporters in Iowa, a performance widely ridiculed by late-night comedians.

Dean said he would return to Burlington, Vermont, where he would conduct a series of satellite TV interviews Wednesday with stations from upcoming battleground states. Campaign aides were also expected to meet to discuss which states Dean ought to focus on in the days head.

Edwards also claimed some bragging rights. Unlike Kerry and Dean, Edwards is from the South, which could help him as seven states, including South Carolina, hold contests next Tuesday.

Three of those states -- South Carolina, Missouri and North Dakota -- have open contests, meaning any registered voter can cast a ballot. That means the candidates' ability to appeal to independent voters will be key.

"We're going so to see great victories on February 3," Edwards said, referring to the upcoming contests. "Yes, we are."

Edwards, in an interview with CNN, described South Carolina -- where he was born -- as a must-win state for his campaign to continue.

Clark was no less enthusiastic about his finish. "Never underestimate what a determined soldier can accomplish when fighting for his country," Clark told cheering supporters.

But he had skipped Iowa to devote his resources to New Hampshire, where a few weeks ago campaign aides had been hoping for a second-place finish.

Lieberman, whose campaign was buffeted by rumors he would drop out, strongly refuted those suggestions Tuesday night.

"I'm not dropping out because there's a virtual split decision for third and no one thought that I would have ended up this close to Wes Clark and John Edwards," he told CNN.

Voters' concerns

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran serving in his fourth term in the Senate, may have benefited in New Hampshire by what some voters described as his electability -- meaning the ability to beat President Bush in the fall.

Of the 33 percent in exit polls who said a candidate's electability was more important to them than the issues, more than half favored Kerry. His experience was also cited as a factor by many voters, according to the exit polls.

The exit polls indicated health care was the top issue on the minds of voters surveyed Tuesday morning. Twenty-six percent of respondents said health care and Medicare were the biggest factors in their votes.

The U.S.-led war in Iraq followed with 22 percent, and 21 percent identified the economy and jobs as their biggest concerns.

Despite below-freezing temperatures, New Hampshire voters turned out in record numbers for a Democratic primary. The turnout was estimated at about 200,000, compared to the previous high of 168,000 in 1992. (New Hampshire residents talk about the primary)

Written by producer Sean Loughlin in Washington.

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