MANCHESTER, N.H. — He won two big victories in eight short days, fell in love and told the world.
"I love New Hampshire," Sen. John F. Kerry declared Tuesday night, smiling, smitten. "And I love Iowa, too. And I hope with your blessing to have the opportunity to love a lot of other states in the nation."
That's an awful lot of electoral ardor, but with a win in the crucial New Hampshire primary and a resounding victory in the Iowa caucuses tucked safely under his silver-tipped belt, he could afford to feel expansive in the packed ballroom of the Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn.
He thanked his wife. He thanked his kids. His sisters, his brother. He thanked his supporters. He thanked his competitors for the "vigorous contest." He even thanked their supporters, "especially the young people who have come in to each of their campaigns ... who love their country."
As the firefighters who served as bouncers struggled to keep the crowd at bay, the onetime Navy lieutenant reserved a special thanks for "the veterans who marched with us" on the road to victory.
"In the hardest moments of the past month I depended on the same band of brothers that I depended on 20 years ago," Kerry said, referring to his election to the Senate. "We're a little older and a little grayer, but I'll tell you this: We still know how to fight for our country.
"If I am president" -- the crowd cheered, the winner paused, the chants began, "When! When! When! When!"-- Kerry caught on and, smiling, continued, "When I am president, I pledge that those who wore the uniform of the United States of America will have a voice and champion in the Oval Office."
Six hours earlier a restless Kerry had been much less cocky about his chances in New Hampshire. He'd spent an excruciating day in Manchester, cooling his heels in an airport-area hotel room, his work mostly done, his fate ostensibly up to the voters.
But by 4 p.m. he'd busted out for a frantic 15 minutes courting drive-time voters, walking through a busy downtown intersection, strolling into traffic lanes, sticking his head into open car windows. As always, these days, he was trailed by cameras. As always, these days, he played down his lead.
"I got antsy sitting around," he told reporters, clambering over crusty snow, explaining his commute-hour jaywalk. "You gotta get people out to vote. You gotta fight for every vote. I get uncomfortable not asking."
Uncomfortable enough that there he was again, 90 minutes before the last vote was cast, popping up outside a Ward 5 polling place, in a last-gasp troll for undecided voters -- or maybe he simply wanted something to do. Present: 35 Kerry supporters, five Clark supporters, one guy with a very large "Joe" sign, one Kerry sister (Peggy), no voters.
So he shook his own supporters' hands, shook the Clark supporters' hands. Finally an unsuspecting voter wandered in and he pounced. "I hope," he told her, "I can earn your vote tonight."
While the senator from Massachusetts spent much of Tuesday spinning with boredom, the campaign was spinning with a far different purpose -- the all-important lowering of expectations.
Peggy Kerry was the queen of the low-ball, carrying a sign that shouted "League of Conservation Voters Endorse John Kerry" while she whispered a tentative prayer at a polling place in the Beech Street School Community Center: "It's going to be a tight race, but I hope that we'll do well."
Then there was the candidate himself at the Ward 5 precinct, asked what it would take for him to be declared the frontrunner. "Just win," Kerry told reporters. "That'd be great. All I have to do is just win. That would be the biggest turnaround in American politics in a long time."
Would it be an upset? Would it be a come-from-behind victory to triumph over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, both of whom he had trailed badly in polls earlier this month?
"I haven't even thought about that," Kerry said. "Just winning, period, it doesn't matter who it's over, it would be a huge turnaround, and it would be something that I would put into the memory treasure of great moments."
His campaign staff was more breathless. "What John Kerry has done in New Hampshire is nothing short of miraculous," gushed an early evening e-mail from press secretary David Wade.
Senior advisor Michael Meehan paced the Holiday Inn scant hours before the victory speech, waiting for the results to roll in, casting doubt on a rosy Dean future, spouting old poll numbers and the campaign line: A win is a win is a win is a win.
"To win when you're down 17 points [in the polls] 10 days ago," he said, "when we were down 35 points four weeks ago, that is an unbelievable amount of movement to be in this position."
OK, then, so what would be a definitive win? What would stamp Kerry with the indelible tattoo of frontrunner? A five-point win over Dean? Ten points? Does it have to be double digits to matter?
"To get one more vote than the next guy here is unbelievable," he said.
To borrow a line from the Kerry stump speech: "Mission accomplished."