MANCHESTER, N.H. — Donald Trump, the businessman who's brought ferocity, flare and fireworks to the 2016 presidential race, can finally call himself a "winner" tonight.
After a tough second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential hopeful corrected the course of his campaign Tuesday with a victory in the first-in-the-nation primary.
His commanding win in the primary put him in a strong position as the race moves to South Carolina, where polls show he's well ahead.
"New Hampshire, I want to thank you," Trump told a roomful of supporters late Tuesday evening during his victory speech. Nearly every 90 seconds, audience members would erupt in defeaning applause or chant Trump's name over an over again.
"I love you," he told the crowd. "We're not going to forget you. You started it. Remember, you started it."
The candidacy of the New York businessman turned reality television star was viewed skeptically by the media and most political observers when he announced last summer. Even as he held a persistent lead in polls, his tendency to make controversial statements and ignore the finer points of policy led to many predictions of impending doom. But incidents that would have sunk other candidates only made him stronger — feeding into his image as a tough-minded leader who isn't afraid to tell it like it is, most prominently, on the issue of immigration. He displayed a skill for dominating the news cycle, and deploying social media as a vehicle to systematically take down rivals.
Despite being criticized for taking positions outside of the conservative orthodoxy, Trump was able to attract independents and even former Democrats on his message of restoring America's economy and place in the world.
Many of Trump's supporters were still shuffling into his watch party Tuesday night when networks began calling the election in his favor. Within minutes, hundreds of the billionaire's eager fans were chanting "TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP," and taking pride in their decision to support his candidacy – even if the decision was made at the last minute.
"I actually took a survey at around 2 a.m. last night that compared my beliefs to the candidates, and I filled it out and it pushed [Trump] up to the top," said Paul Berntsen of Bedford. "I pretty much decided I wanted to vote for somebody who can win and somebody who could beat whatever Democrat ends up in the general election."
Sue, his wife, said she and her husband had decided not to tell each other who they planned to vote for until after their ballots were cast. It came as a surprise when the two native New Jerseyans, who had also considered Gov. Chris Christie, both announced they had voted for Trump.
The Bernstens were both registered Republicans, but many of Trump's supporters Tuesday described themselves as apolitical or former Democrats.
"I was a Democrat until 2013," Alexis Chiparo, the Merrimack Co. chairwoman of Trump for America, told the Washington Examiner Tuesday morning outside a polling location in Concord. She cited "national security, the economy [and] the debt" as issues that played into her decision to back Trump.
Her husband, who belongs to the International Union of Operating Engineers, also cast his ballot for Trump before joining his wife outside to greet voters with "Make America Great Again" signs.
"I haven't been involved in politics for many years," he said.
On Wednesday, Trump will jet off to South Carolina for a campaign rally at Clemson University. With a win in New Hampshire and a 15-point lead in the Palmetto State, which is next to hold its primary on Feb. 20, the bombastic businessman will likely continue to revel in his victory.
"Now that he's won, the Trump train is back on track and the question for him is if he can parlay the momentum in New Hampshire into South Carolina," said veteran Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
O'Connell warned that Trump's unconventional campaign style and shaky ground operation in South Carolina,and later voting states could prevent the leading GOP candidate from securing a winning streak. "In South Carolina, he still does not seem to invest in ground operations at all.
"I think not having that in South Carolina could hurt him and the reason is it's winner-take-all by congressional district," he said, adding that "Nevada could be problematic also because it's a caucus."