The first votes are counted

New Hampshire voters aren’t a perfect cross-section of America — racial minorities are thin on the ground; Manchester and Nashua barely qualify as “urban areas.” Nor did Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary actually select the presidential nominee of either major party. More primaries, choosing larger blocs of delegates, are yet to come.

All that said, though, Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary marked the first time real voters — including independents — trudged to the polls and cast ballots.

And the winnowing has begun.

Contests that bragged seven or eight candidates on either side are now reduced, in essence, to three or four-way races.

Former first lady Hillary Clinton fought back to avoid the Barack Obama blow-out projected by some (AP called the race for Ms. Clinton at 7:35 p.m.) and will remain strongly in the Democratic race. But as a one-time prohibitive favorite now struggling shoulder-to-shoulder, she faces an unenviable choice: She must now land some hard punches, which might only emphasize her “negative” image as a brassy, less-than-affable figure.

On the Republican side, call Arizona Sen. John McCain this year’s “Come-back Kid.” Considered dead in the water last summer for his unwavering support of an unpopular war and his woeful miscalculation of the popular opposition to amnesty for illegal aliens — not to mention an empty bank account — the former Prisoner of War of the Vietnam era benefited from the fact that President George Bush’s “surge” appears to have worked in stabilizing occupied Iraq. On the immigration amnesty issue, Sen. McCain simply says he’s changed his mind. On the financial front, he got rid of excess staff he said were costing him more than they were worth. He rolled up his sleeves, went to New Hampshire, and started shaking hands in diners and donut shops.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished a distant second behind Sen. McCain, who won the independent vote by double digits, based — exit polls tell us — on their perception of the former Naval officer’s character and leadership skills. (When his captors learned Lt. McCain was the son of a U.S. admiral, they offered to send him home early. John McCain refused to leave his fellow prisoners behind.)

In a state whose southern regions are essentially Boston suburbs, the New Hampshire defeat must have been doubly stinging to Mr. Romney. A loss in Michigan — where his father served as governor decades ago — could be the final chapter of the Romney campaign. And John McCain won the Michigan primary four years ago.

Meantime, what happened to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, perceived as the Republican front-runner in New Hampshire as little as five months ago? He finished in the single digits, behind former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee — who could still show well in South Carolina.

Give Democrat Barack Obama credit. Many have promised to inspire young voters and bring them out to the polls in greater numbers with a message of hope and change: He really did it.

But — as skilled an orator as the young Illinois senator may be — there are 10 months to go in this race, against opponents who are now likely to ask precisely what kind of “change” the young man has in mind.

On the Republican side, Sen. McCain — who spoke inspiringly of America’s strength in his acceptance speech — is the oldest candidate in the race. He will doubtless face questions about his age, his temper, and his credentials as a low-tax, laissez faire conservative.

The races are not over. In fact, they remain far tighter than in previous years. (Ronald Reagan swept the 1980 New Hampshire primary with 50 percent of the vote.) Now come Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Few things have happened as the pundits projected. That’s good. It means the voters paid attention, and their votes counted.

Ten months to go.

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