Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic primary Tuesday, as the race to be the party's candidate to take on President Donald Trump in November starts to come into focus after months of battling among a wide group of challengers.
Sanders captured 26% of the vote, edging out former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg who finished with 24%.
Sanders called his performance a "great victory" before a cheering crowd in Manchester, and predicted Democrats would eventually come together in a vital effort to unseat Trump.
"Let me say tonight this victory here is the beginning of the end of Donald Trump," he said. "No matter who wins [the nomination] - and we hope it is us - we are going to unite together and defeat the most dangerous president in the history of the country."
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar turned in a surprising third-place performance with 20% of the vote, bouncing back from a poor showing in last week's Iowa caucus. A University of New Hampshire poll on Monday had her with just 7% support, though only half of respondents said they had made up their mind at that point.
Klobuchar celebrated with her supporters Tuesday night, saying her campaign has "beaten the odds every step of the way."
"I can not wait to win the nomination. I can not wait to build a movement, and win with a movement of fired up Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans that see this election as we do," she said.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren placed fourth with 9% of the vote, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden at 8%.
"Bernie Sanders winning a neighboring state, continuing to be really strong and having die hard, strong support, I think he's a real victor," Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, told VOA. "I think obviously with both Buttigieg and Klobuchar doing better than expectations, all three of those come out of New Hampshire with a lot of momentum."
The win for Sanders, following a strong performance in Iowa, could solidify him as the front-runner in the race, but he has two popular centrists close behind. Many political analysts question whether a self-avowed democratic socialist like Sanders could unseat Trump, who has repeatedly lashed out at Sanders' socialist policies, which include a Medicare-for-All universal health care program.
Sanders and Buttigieg entered New Hampshire tied as the front-runners in the wake of last week's muddled Iowa caucuses, in which Buttigieg narrowly won the most delegates while Sanders narrowly won the popular vote.
Candidates will next focus on the western state of Nevada where they will hold a debate next week ahead of the February 22 caucuses there, and then on South Carolina and its February 29 primary.
Biden, who finished a poor fourth in Iowa after being touted as the front-runner long before he declared his candidacy, left New Hampshire for South Carolina before the election results were in.
Knotts said the South Carolina vote "cannot get here soon enough for Biden."
"There's some good news for Biden. Every poll he has been up in South Carolina," Knotts told VOA. "He's going to very friendly territory, he's got the most endorsements, he's got really strong support from the black community in South Carolina -- that's going to be over 60% of primary voters, likely. It's such a contrast to these states that are much less diverse like Iowa and New Hampshire."
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Biden expressed a sense of forward-looking confidence as he addressed his supporters at a rally Tuesday in Columbia, South Carolina, telling them, "We're just getting started."
"Tonight though, we just heard from the first two of 50 states, two of them," he said. "Not all the nation. Not half the nation. Not a quarter of the nation, not 10 percent -- two. Now where I come from, that's the opening bell, not the closing bell. And the fight to end Donald Trump's presidency is just beginning."
Warren also remained upbeat Tuesday despite another disappointing finish to start the nomination process.
"This fight we're in -- the fight to save our democracy -- is an uphill battle," she said. "But our campaign is built for the long haul."
And highlighting an issue that many Democrats have said is among their biggest priorities when choosing a candidate, Warren said, "Our campaign is best positioned to beat Donald Trump in November, because we can unite our party."
The New Hampshire primary was much more competitive for the Democrats than in 2016 when Sanders won 60% of the vote. But that race was essentially between him and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while this time the field remains crowded.
It is getting a bit thinner after entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who was at the bottom of the pack Tuesday with 3%, announced he would be dropping out. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet also ended his bid for the presidency Tuesday.
More could leave after Super Tuesday on March 3 when 14 states vote.
Knotts said Democrats may take a lesson from the Republican race in 2016, when a number of candidates opposed Trump, but in doing so split the vote among themselves and allowed Trump to claim the Republican nomination.
"If there is an anti-Sanders vote, right now it's Buttigieg and Klobuchar, at least in New Hampshire, getting a bulk of that," he said. "But if they continue to split it up with Warren and Biden, then Sanders is able to win between 20 and 30 percent in all these states, but in a five- or six-person race that can be enough to march toward the nomination. I feel like Super Tuesday, given that it's just three days after South Carolina, I think that's going to be a day when it might turn down to a two- or three-person race."
A potential wild card in the Democratic race is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was not on the ballot in New Hampshire, preferring instead to concentrate his campaign on other states in the coming month where he is using his vast wealth to fund a huge media effort. Bloomberg has become a recent target of Trump's criticism -- a sign that he is starting to draw attention in the crowded field.