MANCHESTER, N.H. — Despite a fifth-place finish in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut vowed to press on with his presidential campaign, casting the best face on a night that saw him marooned far back in the Democratic pack.
Garnering 9% of the vote, Lieberman insisted to a crowd of 250 supporters at an auditorium here that he had finished in a "three-way split decision for third place."
That was Lieberman's optimistic spin on trailing retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina by a few percentage points. All three finished far behind the winner, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
"The battle goes on with the confidence that I am ready to be the president America needs now," Lieberman said, standing onstage before a mammoth American flag, flanked by friends, family and close supporters.
Some experts said Lieberman's finish was a disappointing performance for a Democrat who had hoped to benefit from his status as the party's popular vice presidential candidate in 2000.
He seemed well positioned to capitalize on the fury of the party faithful after that disputed election, but his campaign was plagued by a late start, lack of a clear constituency, and a message of political moderation that was not well received by party activists who wanted a candidate who is more virulently anti-Bush.
"Democratic activists want red meat," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who ended his presidential bid in October. "Joe has a lot of good qualities, but that's not one of them."
Added Al From, a Lieberman backer who is head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council: "Joe is a uniter, and we're in an electorate that is very divided. People want someone with a harder edge to go against Bush this time."
Some analysts believed that if Lieberman won only single-digit support in New Hampshire, he would pull out of the race. But as his supporters cheered, Lieberman announced his plan to fly to Oklahoma, where one of seven Democratic contests will be held Tuesday.
"Friends, I am getting on that plane and going to Oklahoma, where not snow but the wind blows along the plains," he said.
After watching the primary returns with family at his rented Manchester apartment, Lieberman arrived at the New Hampshire Institute of Arts and Sciences about 9:45 p.m. As supporters chanted, "Let's go, Joe!" Lieberman flashed a thumbs-up sign and kissed his 89-year-old mother, Marcia, who sat onstage in a wheelchair.
"Today, New Hampshire's next-door neighbors Howard Dean and John Kerry received most of the votes," Lieberman said. "But the rest were split, with no clear decision reached. This is a cause, and we're ready to take that cause now to the rest of America."
Lieberman insisted he had exceeded expectations, even though he ended up where most polls had predicted.
"You and I both know that the national pundits did not expect this, did they?" he asked to the roar of the crowd. "As a matter of fact, this morning a national newspaper put four candidates on the front page and not me. Today the people of New Hampshire put me in the ring, and that's where we're going to stay."
Lieberman spent Tuesday on a last-ditch effort to woo independents who can vote in either party's primary in New Hampshire. Accompanied by his wife and other family members, Lieberman made stops aboard his Integrity One campaign bus.
Support from independents fueled the primary win by Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the state's 2000 Republican primary. As he campaigned in New Hampshire, Lieberman repeatedly mentioned McCain and legislation the two have cosponsored in the Senate. He made the connection so many times that during a Monday speech in Concord, he said, "Have I mentioned his name too many times?"
On Tuesday night, Lieberman stood beaming with his wife, Hadassah, by his side. He said he called staffers in each of the seven states with contests next week, and "each and every one said to me that, 'We demand that you carry this fight to our states.' "
The crowd roared and someone yelled, "We love ya, Joe!"
Lieberman responded: "I love ya back."
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.