NASHUA, N.H. -- With the same dizzy energy that characterized his insurgent campaign, Sen. John McCain heralded his surprise landslide victory last night as a message of change and a challenge to big money in politics.
"Today, the Republican Party has recovered its heritage of reform," a beaming McCain told hundreds of buoyant supporters here. "My friends, a wonderful New Hampshire campaign has come to an end, but a great national crusade has begun."
In 73 days of campaigning, 114 town hall meetings and countless road trips from early spring through snowy winter, McCain attacked the New Hampshire primary with the zeal of a prizefighter in his last bout.
The hitch, of course, is that this is just the first round. Now, the Arizona senator must sustain the strength of his upstart candidacy against the Republican front-runner, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, as the two head into the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19. Polls there have consistently showed Bush with a wide lead.
Last night, in the jammed Trafalgar ballroom in the Nashua Crowne Plaza, supporters cheered for the war hero who survived 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison camp and went on to build a three-term Senate career. The candidate stood next to a larger-than-life picture of himself as a young Navy flier, the old pilot's superstitions dying hard as he strode onto the stage with a compass in his pocket -- a lucky charm he picked up weeks ago from a voter here.
McCain's battle against special-interest money and the cycle of cynicism he said it breeds proved the background music to this campaign, and it helped McCain dominate not just among independents but also among registered Republicans. He captured 49 percent of the vote -- trouncing Bush by at least 18 percentage points.
Swipe at Democrats
Looking ahead to conservative South Carolina, McCain took a swipe at his potential Democratic opponent, attacking the "truth-twisting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore" and billing himself as a Republican in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.
Before the result was called, McCain waited in the hotel's presidential suite, watching CNN in a room where President George Bush's photograph hung from the wall, cell phones whirred and McCain's young son, Jack, rough-housed with a visitor. Eight floors below, supporters cheered a triumph that had seemed all but impossible a year ago, when polls showed him with just 3 percent of the vote.
Yet even as they celebrated McCain's decisive victory -- secured without Republican establishment endorsements here -- voters wondered whether the blunt-spoken McCain candidacy would thrive beyond the borders of this famously contrarian state.
"It just shows you that honesty can win -- maybe not across the entire country, but in New Hampshire," said Allan Fuller, a Nashua businessman.
But McCain sounded hopeful about a national campaign, saying he had captured the imagination of new voters better than any other candidate had.
"Young people who have become cynical and even alienated -- they see this as a chance to be back again and have a government they feel represents them," he said.
His victory is critical to McCain as he tries to transform his image from an upstart who challenged the system to a leader capable of winning the nomination. McCain must now convince Republicans that a vote for him would not be a wasted expression of protest along the road to an inevitable Bush victory.
In a hint at the aggressive strategy McCain will take South, supporters dubbed him an elder statesman who, unlike the former president's son, was ready to lead now.
"He's the man!" Orson Swindle, himself a former Vietnam POW, declared over a seven-piece band and an exuberant crowd. "When you want someone to lead the free world, you send a man to do the job -- not a boy."
Banking on momentum
This was the last evening of a nine-month New Hampshire journey that was widely seen as the political wager of McCain's life. Having skipped Iowa, where presidential candidates are usually first tested in the caucuses, McCain poured an extraordinary amount of time and money into New Hampshire. Now, the campaign is banking on underdog momentum and multimillion-dollar donations to carry him along in the coming primaries.
The candidate will spend 15 days in South Carolina -- with small breaks to campaign in other key primary states, such as California and Michigan. He will hit the road -- via bus with a band of reporters -- and travel the 4 1/2 hours of highway that lead from one end of South Carolina to the other.
"If you want to see John McCain, you don't have to buy too much gas, and you don't have to stay up too late," said Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who campaigned for McCain here to try to generate attention back home.