MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Now officially a winner after clinching New Hampshire, Donald Trump faced a fresh test for his once-improbable campaign as the Republican presidential race careened into more conservative territory in South Carolina.
The billionaire political novice posted a decisive victory in the nation’s first primary, leaving in his wake a still-crowded field of Republicans struggling to break out of the pack. Restive Democrats had their own act of anti-establishment defiance, lining up behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders while delivering a New Hampshire rejection of Hillary Clinton’s second bid for the White House.
With no clear rival to Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republicans, the candidates headed south Wednesday with little clarity about a nomination battle that seemed likely to stretch into the spring. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, bruised from a demoralizing defeat, nixed a planned event in South Carolina and headed home to mull whether to stay in the race.
Trump wasn’t publicly choosing among his rivals. “I think they’re all really potential threats,” he said on MSNBC. “But I’m OK at handling threats.”
With final votes still being tallied, Trump led with 35 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. In a primary stunner, Ohio Gov. John Kasich surged from relative obscurity to second place, a feat his poorly funded campaign will struggle to replicate in South Carolina and beyond. Cruz finished third, trailed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in fourth, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in fifth and Christie in sixth.
Sanders was leading Clinton by 22 percentage points, with roughly 90 percent of their party’s vote tabulated. Democrats move on to Nevada, where Sanders will leave his New England neighborhood and try to prove his mettle with a more diverse and urban electorate.
“We have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California,” he told a cheering crowd in Concord. His campaign launched ads Wednesday in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Colorado and Massachusetts — all states where they believe Sanders can grow.
Clinton tried to show she’d heard the message.
“People have every right to be angry,” she said, as she conceded to Sanders. “But they are also hungry. They’re hungry for solutions. What are we going to do?”
From New Hampshire the parties’ paths to the nomination diverge.
Nevada has been considered Clinton territory, in part because of her strong relationships to the Latino community and longtime Democrats in the state. Still, Sanders has been pouring in money and staff.
Republicans head to South Carolina, the first in a string of Southern contests that will ultimately test whether Cruz, Rubio or both can force Trump into a long primary fight. All have expansive organizations in South Carolina and several Super Tuesday states that will vote in March.
Another big question: Can Bush parlay his family’s long South Carolina ties into new energy. His campaign released a radio ad Wednesday in South Carolina featuring his brother, former President George W. Bush.
A night of victory speeches from a reality TV tycoon and avowed democratic socialist was all-but unimaginable six months ago, before outsider fever gripped Democrats and Republicans alike, stoking deep anxieties for the establishment in both parties.
In remarks Tuesday night, Rubio acknowledged his bungled debate performance last weekend hurt him, perhaps depriving him of the second look he earned after his strong third-place showing in Iowa just a week earlier. “It’s on me,” he told supporters.
Cruz, the Iowa winner and a favorite of social conservatives, proved unable to win over New Hampshire’s more moderate brand of Republican. Those voters went to Kasich, who staked his campaign on New Hampshire, and declared his second-place showing an affirmation of his largely positive campaign.
“Light overcame the darkness,” he said.
Sanders’ win was also telegraphed for weeks, as his indictment of Wall Street and big money in politics caught fire in a state that was once considered a reservoir of good will for both Clinton and her husband. Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton won the state by 2.5 percentage points in a late comeback over then-Sen. Barack Obama.
But in New Hampshire Sanders’ coalition was strikingly broad, cutting across both ideological and demographic lines, according to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the Associated Press and the television networks. The poll found Sanders won a majority of votes from independents, voters under 45, liberals, moderates, men and, perhaps most cutting for Clinton who is striving to be the first female president, women.